Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Families Say Dallas Juvenile Justice Center Mistreats Kids

Dallas County is locking up minors for months longer than national standards recommend and administering more punitive rulings than other counties. Families worry their children are locked inside for most of the day.

Mark Halstead remembers the last time he was outside.

The 17-year-old, being held at Dallas’ Henry Wade Juvenile Justice Center while waiting for his reckless driving case to be resolved, was allowed to walk outside one day in February with other kids to visit a mobile dentist. As they waited for their dental exams, he tried to get a glimpse of what was around the beige brick building.

Mark could hear fast cars. He was near a highway. He could smell sugary confections from a nearby candy factory waft through the air. He felt the sun on his face, relishing the heat and warmth.

Once his dental check-up was finished, he was led inside to continue waiting for a judge to decide his future. For the 11 months Halstead has been at Henry Wade, he says he has been outside only that one time.

Twice a week, he gets 15-minute visits with his mother, Victoria Halstead. While he looks forward to seeing her, she is anxious. Mark gets thinner each time, she says, and her list of concerns grows.

A report commissioned by Dallas County and released in March by Evident Change, formerly the National Council on Crime & Delinquency and Children’s Research Center, found Dallas County is locking up minors for months longer than national standards recommend and is doling out more punitive judgments than some other big Texas counties.

The Dallas Morning News interviewed Victoria Halstead and parents from nine other families whose concerns go much further: They say children in the detention center at Henry Wade are being left in locked cells for the majority of the day, have not been sufficiently fed and some have not received medical care.

At least one concern has lingered for years: Kids have been reporting to investigators, county officials and reporters as far back as 2016 that they haven’t been allowed to go outside.

“If we didn’t feed our kids or bathe them, someone would call CPS,” Halstead said. “Why do they not get in trouble for these things?”

In a June 13 interview with The News, Dallas’ Director of Juvenile Department Darryl Beatty said he was until recently unaware of the allegations about conditions at the detention center.

“Those things are not things that we want to happen,” he said.

Beatty said the current guard shortage could be a factor in some complaints. According to the latest data made available, from April, the detention center had 78 vacancies and only 76 filled positions.

Beatty said the detention center is compliant with state staffing standards.

“It’s a unique thing to be fully staffed,” he said, adding, “Obviously, this is a lot more vacancies than what we want to be working with right now.”

A former detention center worker and a current member of the staff, who spoke to The News on the condition they not be publicly identified, confirmed much of what the parents said. One employee said he has worked in corrections for more than 10 years and has never seen a worse facility than the Henry Wade detention center.

Dallas’ juvenile justice system has been under county commissioners’ watchful eyes in the months since the scathing report was released. The Dallas County Juvenile Board, appointed to oversee the juvenile department, is suing county commissioners to stop them from accessing records that could show how long children are isolated in their cells as they examine allegations about conditions at the detention center.

Dallas County Commissioner Andrew Sommerman, who serves on the juvenile board that oversees the detention center, has been spearheading efforts to uncover the truth about problems at the center. He said he was not surprised by The News’ findings after hearing many complaints himself.

“We as the juvenile board should take seriously any of these types of complaints and make sure that they’re properly being investigated and evaluated,” he said.

The complaints are similar to ones plaguing the state juvenile justice system.

“We’ve done a lot at the state level. We really need to start digging into what’s happening on a local level where there isn’t as much oversight,” said Alycia Castillo, policy director for the advocacy group Texas Center for Justice and Equity.

Isolation and No Fresh Air

Mark has been locked up since July 2022, after an elderly woman died when his car struck hers. His mother says he has been locked in a cell for up to 23 hours a day with nothing but a bed, a toilet and his loneliness.

Every parent who spoke to The News in recent weeks confirmed that their detained child has spent most of every day — many said about 22 hours — alone in a cell.

The current and former detention center workers confirmed the lengthy stays in cells. They said children are only out of their cells for two or three hours a day.

The Dr. Jerome McNeil Jr. Detention Center, located in the Henry Wade Justice Center and commonly referred to as “Henry Wade,” is one of 45 facilities around the state where children wait for their cases to be adjudicated. It was constructed in 1995 to house up to 322 kids and now houses about 140 children with cases for everything from petty theft to murder.

The small, concrete and cinder block cells contain a toilet with a small sink on the back of it, and a concrete slab bench on which a three-inch thick pad is usually laid out for sleeping. A small, horizontal window and a fluorescent light provide illumination. Each cell’s thick, blue metal door has a narrow, vertical window.

Victoria Halstead worries about the long-term impact of solitary confinement on Mark. He used to be a “goofball,” playing jokes and roughhousing with his siblings and mother. In visitations, she said he is a shell of who he was.

Parents say their children are locked up in conditions worse than those under which adults are jailed, because the general adult jail population leave their cells more often and go outside.

Adults on death row in Texas get at least an hour a week outdoors.

Families told The News they feel hopeless and angry about conditions in the detention center and an often lengthy judicial process that leaves them feeling in the dark and unsure when their children will get justice.

Victoria Halstead said she wishes Mark were in Dallas County’s adult jail where he would go outside and she could post bail.

“I’d rather him be charged as an adult so he had options,” she said.

Some juvenile board members addressed the allegations of solitary confinement in a June 10 retreat. Family court Judge Andrea Plumlee asked Sommerman and fellow board member County Judge Clay Lewis Jenkins to be careful with the words they use.

She denied that children were held in “isolation.”

“I think we should be real careful about our words that we use, because we don’t have isolation in juvenile,” Plumlee said. “When we use those words, as the professional, that gets out into the public domain. And we do not have that.”

Lewis Jenkins and Sommerman repeatedly asked what word Plumlee would prefer to use for instances when kids “are behind a door and they shouldn’t be.” She did not respond, but Juvenile Judge Andrea Martin did.

“We don’t just put kids behind doors when they shouldn’t be,” Martin replied.

Neither Plumlee nor Martin has responded to repeated requests for comment.

Beatty, who has run the Dallas juvenile department since 2018, said in an April interview that he was unaware of the complaints about children spending long periods in isolation. He said that kids remaining in their room for long periods of time should not happen.

“That’s just not something that is appropriate,” Beatty said. “There shouldn’t be a situation where you are in the room for that amount of time.”

Parents say since The News first asked about the long periods of isolation, things have changed: Their children can now go to the gym for about an hour a couple times a week.

State standards for juvenile detention centers say children can be placed into forced isolation “as a last resort” for the well-being of themselves, staff or other children. There is no maximum time that children can be held in isolation, but staff are usually required to check on the children every 15 minutes.

State standards do not require that children get time outside.

This is the third time in recent years that detained Dallas County children have complained that they are not being allowed outdoors.

A state inspector reported in 2016 that Dallas’ children were not getting time outside, noting in a report that state regulations “do not specifically state youth must be allowed to participate in outdoor recreational activities,” The News reported. But “since it is a requirement for the facility to provide an outdoor area — it is presumed that youth would be allowed access to the outdoor exercise area,” the inspector wrote.

In 2017, a News investigation revealed that boys in a juvenile lockup went months — sometimes more than a year — without going outdoors more than a few times.


Most parents who spoke to The News also said they are worried about how little their children are being fed.

Ashley Lively said guards and other kids would take food off of her 15-year-old’s tray. Her son told her he was hungry most of the time.

Halstead said her son weighed 150 pounds before his incarceration. Eleven months later, he weighs 130.

Mercy Bruner said her 16-year-old daughter describes the food as “old and nasty.” Bruner said the detention center staff are punitive when her pregnant daughter acts out or gets into a fight. Pregnant girls are given a second food tray at the center, she said. Her daughter told her that she loses her second tray if she gets into trouble.

Sommerman said at the June juvenile board retreat that he would support spending more on food in juvenile detention facilities after hearing complaints from children.

Cheryl Shannon, juvenile board chair and a juvenile court judge since 1995, replied, “They always complain about the food. That’s not new.”

“The food meets all the FDA requirements, and we are audited,” Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price said at the meeting.

Medical Care and Hygiene

LaRonda, who asked that her family’s last name not be published because her son is a minor, said he was hospitalized after he exchanged gunfire with another teen at a video game store.

Her 17-year-old son was shot in both legs and taken to the hospital. He was released to the detention center in February in a wheelchair. He later was able to start using a walker.

LaRonda says her son has not seen a physical therapist at Henry Wade. She worries he may never walk correctly again.

“He’s literally pulling his hair out,” LaRonda said. “That’s medical neglect.”

LaRonda said she doesn’t understand why her son isn’t on probation because she says he can’t violate it if he can’t walk. She said when it has been difficult for her son to go to the bathroom, staff have told him to urinate on the floor.

“They are humans, not dogs,” she said.

When asked about what LaRonda said, Beatty replied that staff should file an order to take the child to Parkland in such cases.

“We don’t disallow them to get their medical care if they need it,” he said.

Beatty said children who feel ill can tell staff they are sick or write a note in the “sick box,” similar to a suggestion box where kids can drop off notes detailing their symptoms. Staffers refer concerns to Parkland Health personnel who are on site.

Beatty referred further questions about medical treatment to Parkland, which runs the county’s public hospital and is charged with providing medical care for the county’s detained children.

Parkland spokesperson Jolene DeVito told The News that the hospital system’s clinical care providers at the juvenile detention center make any needed referrals to the hospital.

Parkland also provides health screening and numerous types of tests and treatments for the children, including not only urgent care but also immunizations, dental care and suicide prevention programs.

In interviews after parents visited their children on April 18, several told The News that their children had a rash, some on the side of their faces, others on the neck or arms.

Some parents attribute this rash to a lack of hygiene. One mother, who asked that her family not be named, said her 16-year-old son had been in the center since March for violating his probation, waiting for a judge to decide his case. His sheets hadn’t been washed in a month, she said. She said her son told her he had not bathed in three days.

“My baby is breaking out real bad,” she said.

Beatty said children should be given time to shower every day. He said he was not informed of any breakout of rashes among children in the center.

Bruner’s daughter has cycled in and out of the detention center since 2021 after she got angry and pushed her binder and school items off a desk while in a Disciplinary Alternative Education Program in the Grand Prairie ISD. That led to the first of several trips to the detention center. She most recently arrived in March, while pregnant, after she ran away while on probation and was beaten and hospitalized by a man who her mother says was using her for sex trafficking.

Bruner said the showers are “disgusting.” Her daughter told her — and the current and former detention center employees confirmed — that there are insects coming out of the drain in the moldy showers.

The former detention center employee told The News that toilets in the cells get blocked frequently and guards sometimes make a child wait two or three days before the toilets are repaired.

Sometimes, guards will have children eat in their cells rather than have to monitor them in the multipurpose rooms, he said. “I would not like to eat in the same room where my toilet has been clogged for days, and there is feces everywhere,” he said.

Parents also say their children are not receiving prescribed medications. Lively said a psychiatrist prescribed her son psychiatric medication before he was placed in the detention center, but added that he has not received his medication while in the detention center.

DeVito said Parkland can’t comment on unverified reports from unnamed parents nor discuss a particular case. At intake, each child is asked if they take medications. If the juvenile says yes, medical providers verify the medication and obtain consent from the guardian to continue.

Lively said she was never asked for her consent for her son to continue his psychiatric medication.

Little Parental Contact

While the parents worry about their children’s living conditions in the detention center, they also say they don’t hear from them enough and have no idea how long their children will remain there.

The report released earlier this year said children in Dallas’ juvenile court system are languishing in the detention center for an average of 140 days – more than four and a half months.

Many worry about bullying. Children accused of a crime wait for their outcome together in the detention center. So children accused of stealing a car are in the same facility as those who have been accused of killing someone.

Lively said she considers her to be lucky to have only spent about three months in the center after being accused of car theft. She said most of the parents she met while her son was in the detention center still have children stuck there.

“It needs to be fixed. These kids don’t deserve to be sitting there for months waiting for a court date,” she said. “These kids need help.”

During the childrens’ confinement, they have little contact with their parents.

The state prohibits detention center staff from restricting contact with parents as a form of punishment. Children at the Dallas center are allowed phone calls with guardians at least once a week for five minutes and they are allowed 15-minute visits twice a week.

“I feel like I signed away my rights to my kid,” Lively said. “I feel like he is not my kid anymore. He is property of the state now.”

Bruner says when her daughter has gotten into fights or arguments with others, her phone and visitation privileges have been revoked. Bruner said she worries about the lack of communication, especially when she doesn’t talk to her daughter for days — or a week.

Beatty said withholding phone calls should not be a punitive measure.

Every parent that spoke to The News complained about how long they must wait to visit their child. They idle for hours to see their children for 15 minutes.

“It takes no less than 3.5 hours to see my son,” Lively said.

In a good week, Halstead says she gets to see her son for a total of 30 minutes and he is allowed a call for up to 15 minutes. Many kids only get a three-minute call, the parents said.

Halstead hires a babysitter — for up to five hours sometimes — to watch her other children while she waits in line with parents. Getting to see her son is like a second job, she said.

Mark’s trial was rescheduled four times between February and May. He finally took an eight-year plea in June. He’s waiting for a bed to open up in a state youth prison. He will remain incarcerated until he is 18 at the earliest.

“It’s hard. I’m just ready for the day to come,” Halstead said. “I’m not the only one waiting for a hug. I think his siblings will push me out of the way.”

Mark’s mother said he recently told her he is scared to get out. He’s become used to a set schedule, worried breaking the routine will end badly for him.

“He said, ‘I just want to go home and stay in my own bed and just breathe,’” Halstead said.


Barbara Kessler of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department said the agency is charged with inspecting child detention facilities annually. The TJJD’s Office of the Inspector General investigates allegations of abuse, neglect or exploitation of youth in county facilities.

The state has one open investigation into “alleged supervisory neglect” related to an incident this spring at Dallas’ detention center. Employees reported the incident to the state. Details are not publicly available.

“This review is being done at the request of the Dallas County Juvenile Department,” Kessler said.

The department’s monitoring and inspections division visited Dallas in June, Kessler said. Asked if the investigation will only look at this one incident, Kessler replied that the team will look at standards and do routine inspections of facilities.

The detention center has been found to be violating codes in six of the nine state inspections since 2017, according to records obtained by The News. State auditors reported on problems in the detention center that included no exercise for the children, children were given worn down shoes, and checks on the children required to take place every 15 minutes were not completed overnight and therefore the “statutory definition of neglect was confirmed.”

In a 2018 report, a state auditor found one child’s hands were shackled for an unjustified length of time — 57 minutes — following comments of self-harm.

Beyond the annual inspections, the state insists the Dallas County Juvenile Board is responsible for ensuring county and contracted facilities are suitable and appropriate for detention.

Only two of the nine members of the juvenile board — Lewis Jenkins and Sommerman — responded to repeated requests for comment on the allegations about conditions in the facilities. Serving on the Dallas County Commissioners Court, they are part of the same elected body that is fighting for access to data allowing for more scrutiny of conditions at the facilities.

The juvenile board maintains that releasing that information, contained in observation records on each child, would be illegal in part due to the state’s strict confidentiality laws surrounding juvenile records.

Sommerman has been questioning the transparency of the juvenile department since his appointment in April. He said he does not believe the board is being told the whole truth by the juvenile department.

“I want to fix this problem. But I have to know what’s going on over there,” he said. “It is opaque. There is no transparency, and that is wrong.”

Lewis Jenkins agreed changes are needed.

“The best way to fix this, like everything else, is going to be sunlight,” he said.

State code outlines that the juvenile boards “may make any special studies or investigations it considers necessary to improve the operations of the juvenile probation departments.”

During the June 10 budget retreat, Sommerman and Lewis Jenkins repeatedly asked for a study on salary and staffing levels, noting that added staffing could be the critical solution to the alleged overuse of isolation. Criminal district court Judge Amber Givens, another board member, said such action is not within the juvenile board’s authority.

“We aren’t a body that just gets to govern ourselves, however we choose to. The Legislature governs us,” Givens said. “We’re acting like we’re this business that we can just run however we choose. The request and the idea that you could step before TJJD is kind of–”

“Hubris — that’s the word that comes to mind,” Plumlee finished for her.

©2023 The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

TNS delivers daily news service and syndicated premium content to more than 2,000 media and digital information publishers.
Special Projects