Texas Juvenile Justice Department’s watchdog is latest to go in Abbott shakeup

Gov. Greg Abbott is set to replace another official at the scandal-plagued Texas Juvenile Justice Department, and one juvenile justice reform advocate said the action appears to be retaliation for the official’s speaking out about agency flaws.

The Republican governor is set to announce the replacement of Debbie Unruh, chief of the independent office that investigates safety complaints by youth in the department’s custody, according to multiple juvenile justice advocates. It’s the latest in a string of replacements at the agency as it struggles under violence and sexual abuse scandals and staffing shortages.

Unruh has served as the independent watchdog of the agency since 2010, according to the state directory. She previously was a jail administrator in Randall County and is a licensed private investigator. Advocates said they heard of her replacement from Unruh on Tuesday morning. She did not immediately respond to requests for comment for this article.

“I’m just really alarmed by this because I just can’t imagine she’s going to be replaced by someone with a stronger commitment to protecting youth and raising the red flag,” said Lindsey Linder, a policy attorney at the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition who focuses on juvenile justice issues. “It certainly feels like retaliation for elevating these scandals.”

After reports obtained by The Dallas Morning News revealed a conviction and arrests of guards at the Gainesville State School in North Texas for having sex with committed youth, Unruh has been vocal about her thoughts on what the department should have done about the crisis.

She told The News that the agency should have done more, because problems at the lockup had been growing in the last year with staffing problems. She said the facility had a “bad culture.”

The governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment on the replacement Tuesday, and it is unknown who is set to replace Unruh. An announcement by the governor was expected Wednesday, according to Linder.

Deborah Fowler, executive director of Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit that advocates for juvenile justice reform, said the agency sees turnover in leadership anytime there’s a crisis in the lockups, but that she would be sad to see Unruh go.

“I do worry about the agency losing an advocate like Debbie,” she said. “She’s really been instrumental in bringing to light some of the problems that exist in the facility.”

Abbott oversees the department’s governing board and the independent ombudsman’s office, which Unruh oversees. The office investigates noncriminal complaints of youth in TJJD and performs monthly visits and evaluations at each of the state’s five youth lockups.

News of Unruh’s replacement comes a day after Abbott replaced the chairman of the the agency’s board. Abbott has been deeply involved in what state senators said was a needed “shakeup” at the agency after a sexual abuse scandal at the Gainesville State School was revealed. His former employee is now the executive director of the department, and he’s directed funds and Texas Rangers to the department to help pull the agency out of crisis.

Disclosure: Texas Appleseed has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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