United States

U.S. Justice Department opens probe of Texas juvenile detention facilities

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A folder with the seal of the U.S. Department of Justice sits on a table at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, May 11, 2015. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/File Photo

WASHINGTON, Oct 13 (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department has launched an investigation into juvenile detention facilities in Texas after receiving reports of physical and sexual abuse by staff members against children, U.S. Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Kristen Clarke said on Wednesday.

"Our investigation will focus on whether there is a pattern or practice of physical or sexual abuse of children in Texas's secure facilities," Clarke told a news conference.

"We will also investigate whether there is a pattern or practice of harm as a result of the excessive use of chemical restraints, excessive use of isolation, or lack of adequate mental health services," she said.

This marks the latest in a series of investigations into systematic patterns of abuse that the Justice Department has launched in recent months into police departments and jails across the country, including one probe into Georgia state prisons and others looking at police departments in Minneapolis and Louisville.

It is yet another legal escalation for the state of Texas, which is also facing two civil lawsuits filed by the Justice Department over the state's broad abortion ban and its executive order restricting the travel of migrants.

Camille Cain, executive director for the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, said in a statement her office will cooperate fully with the United States Department of

Justice."

"We all share the same goals for the youth in our care: providing for their safety, their effective rehabilitation, and the best chance for them to lead productive, fulfilling lives," she added.

The Justice Department's probe, which will focus on five secure juvenile facilities across the entire state, was sparked by "an extensive review of publicly available information" as well as information provided by stakeholders, Clarke said.

For instance, she said, at least 11 staff members of Texas facilities have been arrested for sexually abusing children in their care.

In addition, she pointed to other examples of misconduct including reports of staff members allegedly paying children with drugs or cash to assault other children.

In one incident from last February, she said, staff allegedly "pepper-sprayed a child and placed him in full mechanical restraints...and then body-slammed him onto a bed."

Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch and Eric Beech; Editing by Chris Reese and Aurora Ellis

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