Texas Governor Replaces Key Officials in Scandal-Plagued Juvenile Justice Department

by | January 31, 2018

By Keri Blakinger

Gov. Greg Abbott is in the process of replacing two top officials at the scandal-plagued juvenile justice agency that is still adjusting to a new executive director who took the helm last month.

Wes Ritchey, a county judge in Dallam County, is taking over for current Texas Juvenile Justice Department board chair Scott Fisher, Abbott announced Monday. A day later, the chief ombudsman, Debbie Unruh, sent an email to central office employees announcing her resignation, officials confirmed.

"This is a really sad day for youth in Texas," Lindsey Linder, a policy attorney with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, said upon learning of Unruh's departure.

The changes at the top come on the heels of a sex abuse scandal that prompted the governor to send in the Texas Rangers for a "detailed investigation" at the Gainesville State School, where one guard was recently convicted and three other employees arrested for allegedly having sexual relationships with incarcerated youths. At the same time, the agency has struggled with chronic understaffing and repeated assaults.

"They are being run by the bullies and the gangs, and the employees are working in an environment of fear," state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said in December.

Last month, the board hired Camille Cain, Abbott's criminal justice director, to take the helm as executive director following David Reilly's retirement. At the time, top aides said Abbott was unhappy that faster actions had not been taken to stem the problems.

In a letter congratulating Cain on her on the new gig, the governor promised the "egregious" abuse would be "dealt with to the fullest extent of the law" and expressed hope for reducing the juvenile prison population.

The agency has already begun reviewing certain assaultive inmates for possible transfer to adult prisons and, at the same time, reinstated release criteria that could send better-behaving offenders home to their communities.

"The goal over time would be to reduce our population by approximately 250 to get to where we needed to be to be safe, based on the number of staff we have available," TJJD spokeswoman Carolyn Beck said this month.

Ritchey joined the board one year ago and currently serves as its Finance and Audit Committee chair. As the current Dallam County judge, he hears juvenile cases for the county and serves on the Dallam-Hartley-Sherman County Juvenile Probation Board. He's a former Dalhart ISD trustee and certified juvenile probation officer.

It was not immediately clear how Unruh's departure came about, Beck said.

Unruh's departure email offered best wishes to the agency and indicated the governor would be appointing a replacement immediately. She'd been with the independent ombudsman office for seven years.

The ombudsman, an office reporting to the governor and the legislature, is responsible for investigating abuse allegations at the state's juvenile facilities, a role that Linder highlighted as a critical part of agency oversight.

"She has demonstrated an unfailing commitment to transparency," Linder said. "It's largely because of Debbie's efforts that we know the extent of the issues happening in TJJD."

(c)2018 the Houston Chronicle