Dallas County commissioners are being asked to hire legal counsel for the county’s juvenile director as he continues in a standoff against their own effort to gain access to records that could shed light on the alleged poor treatment of minors in detention.
So far, commissioners have not acted to foot the bill for the attorneys.
The Commissioners Court approved an order on May 8 directing that observation sheets of each child held in the county detention center between Jan. 1, 2023 and April 4, 2023 be released to commissioners. These sheets detail where each child was during check-ins throughout each day.
The request for the observation sheets was initiated by Dallas County Commissioner Andrew Sommerman weeks after a report found the Dallas County juvenile justice system is woefully falling behind national standards.
The report highlighted failures in the juvenile system and found that Dallas County children are held in the detention center for longer periods of time while they wait for a judicial decision. Dallas County also sends more children to its detention center than any other Texas county.
Commissioners had an agenda item in their Tuesday meeting to vote on whether to provide Juvenile Executive Director Darryl Beatty and his department with legal counsel to counter the commissioners’ order. But the item was removed from consideration and never voted on.
Sommerman, recently appointed to also serve on the juvenile justice board, says he is seeking to confirm reports from children that they are isolated in their cells for the majority of the day.
But Beatty has refused to surrender the records, saying that turning over confidential juvenile records would be a clear violation of state law. Beatty, whose employment is determined by the juvenile board, declined to comment.
Commissioners felt the tension Monday at a Dallas County Juvenile Board meeting, where all other members voted against the two commissioners on the board on nearly every issue.
After a nearly 40-minute executive session, juvenile board chair Cheryl Shannon, also a juvenile court judge, told board members Sommerman and County Judge Clay Lewis Jenkins that they could not attend due to a conflict of interest. The two left the room while the rest of the board discussed approving legal representation for Beatty, the Dallas County Juvenile Department and board members.
Once the board meeting was reopened to the public and the commissioners returned, Lewis Jenkins and Sommerman voted against hiring dual counsel for Beatty, the department and the board. The other seven members of the board — made up of juvenile judges, civil, family, and criminal judges and the youth services advisory chair — unanimously approved the measure.
Lewis Jenkins recommended Sommerman for vice chair of the board as it sought to fill the No. 2 post after County Commissioner John Wiley Price was recently ousted from the juvenile board by fellow county commissioners who replaced him with Sommerman.
Other members of the juvenile board unanimously opposed Lewis Jenkins’ suggestion and voted for Judge Andrea Plumlee of the 330th District Court.
The agenda also included the certification of two juvenile department facilities: Lyle B. Medlock Residential Treatment Center and the Youth Village.
Lewis Jenkins said that he wanted to know how many employees were at each facility. He said that the Medlock facility is authorized to have 33 positions, 18 of which are vacant.
Lewis Jenkins said the juvenile department promises woodworking and a room for kids to watch TV at the facilities.
“If we don’t have the staffing, the kids aren’t in the room with the TV, they are going to be right there in their cells,” he said.
Sommerman concurred, having heard complaints from parents.
Jeremy Aleman said earlier this month that his daughter was held in a county detention center for close to two years. He said that she was kept in her room — about the size of a bathroom — for months apart from leaving for phone calls and showers. She would lie down on the ground to see underneath the door and talk with other girls.
But Shannon said questions about the facilities were not pertinent to their certification. She said they could be discussed at a Saturday board retreat. The retreat was later canceled.
Both commissioners voted against the certifications. All other board members approved them.
Sommerman also asked Shannon when he could propose a compromise between the board and commissioners over the observation reports. Shannon said the Monday board meeting was not the time, because it regarded “pending litigation.”
Instead of following through with the demand for records, Sommerman said later that he would be open to having a third-party expert — like the research group that completed the report on the Dallas County juvenile system — review the detention facilities and determine whether there are problems.
“I am not your enemy,” Sommerman said when later speaking about the juvenile board. “I just don’t want kids in isolation.”