Forget Jerry Springer, Oprah and Judge Judy: The Joint Legislative Committee investigating the TYC offers unscripted daytime drama featuring bereaved parents, sympathetic lawmakers, selfless state workers, and a surprise appearance by a principal in one of Houston's most notorious murder cases.
Today's riveting hearing played out before an overflow audience that was equal parts TYC employees and parents of incarcerated youth. As you might expect, you could cut the tension with a knife. As parents made allegations about conditions at youth facilities, fidgety audience members audibly sighed and whispered frustrated comments to each other. When a lawmaker commented that 60 percent of the extensions of youth sentences had not been properly documented, a man sitting behind me stage-whispered, "I don't believe that's true!"
But the only outburst--of applause--came when a lawmaker told TYC employees they had been let down by the "central office" (the TYC administration) in Austin.
Chairmen Jerry Madden and John Whitmire tried to direct emotional parents to the question at hand: how to best improve the system. Several times their remarks veered over into describing criminal behavior, which Madden and Whitmire halted since it might taint ongoing investigations.
Early in the hearing, Deborah Geisler testified about her concerns that her 13-year-old son, in TYC for the shooting murder of his father when he was 10, was in danger of being raped but had older incarcerated youths protecting him. She also complained that TYC staff had not included her in therapeutic plans for her son's resocialization. She said she had requested to view research that backed up the TYC resocialization program and had been told she had to visit Austin to view the documents she requested.
Then, Senator Chris Harris interrupted: Ma'am, who is the legal guardian of your son?
"His grandparents," Ms. Geisler responded.
Suddenly, it dawned on everyone in the room: This is the horrific case of the 10-year-old Houston boy who shot his 41-year-old physician father, Rick Lohstroh, a University of Texas Medical Branch physician, after his parents' acrimonious divorce. During the divorce proceedings, Ms. Geisler alleged that her husband had sexually abused her son. Three law enforcement agencies investigated the allegations and declined to press charges. The boy shot his father with Ms. Geisler's gun when he arrived to pick his son up for visitation. At the time of the shooting, the boy had recently begun taking 90 milligrams a day of Prozac for depression. Family friends blamed Ms. Geisler with "poisoning" her son against his father. After the boy was sentenced to TYC, jurors were quoted in the Houston Chronicle about their heartbreaking decision. "We put him in a structured placewhere he could get psychotherapy and be away from his mother," a juror told reporters. Lohstroh's parents subsequently won custody of the boy and his younger brother.
"Thank you," Harris said, with a dismissive tone.
I left the hearing late in the afternoon, and dozens of people were waiting to testify. But while I was there, a team from the Crockett State School talked passionately about their work with these difficult teens and offered concrete suggestions about how to fix the system. Among their suggestions: collapsing the age divide (now, 10-year-olds dorm with 21-year-olds), security cameras, better staff training.
But the most poignant came from the school principal, who wondered why mentally retarded kids were being jailed: "We need some restraints in the court system to not send mentally retarded kids," she testified. With the state's policy of indeterminate sentencing, kids committed to TYC must adhere to certain behavioral standards before they are released. Mentally retarded kids, she testified, are "never going to understand why they are there and how to get out."
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