May 4, 2007 - 9:37PM
AUSTIN — Young inmates on psychotropic medications at one Texas youth prison have not seen a psychiatrist since January, health providers told lawmakers Friday.
State lawmakers said they were shocked at yet more revelations of problems involving the state’s juvenile corrections agency, this time detailing major gaps in health coverage for incarcerated boys and girls.
Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said health care in the Texas Youth Commission "ain’t worth a damn" and questioned whether the state should continue its contract with the University of Texas Medical Branch. He is co-chairman of a legislative committee charged with investigating the agency.
"It’s so bad, I think we need to start over, like from scratch," Whitmire said. "We got to throw this one out."
At Evins Regional Juvenile Center in Edinburg, mentally ill inmates see a psychiatrist by teleconference only and do not have face-to-face visits, a youth commission official said. At West Texas State School in Pyote, where alleged sexual abuse by administrators grabbed the attention of lawmakers in February, the doctor and psychiatrist have never even met, said Dr. Sheri Talley, who is the doctor at Pyote.
About one-third of 250 people at West Texas State School have psychiatric problems, Talley said.
At Corsicana Residential Treatment Center, there are two part-time psychiatrists for 170 youth, all of whom are diagnosed with serious mental illness and sent there to stabilize before beginning their "socialization" program at other youth commission facilities.
One of the psychiatrists is leaving at the end of May, said Nancy Slott, the agency’s health services administrator.
At Ron Jackson State Juvenile Correctional Complex in Brownwood, children have not seen psychiatrists since January, meaning mentally ill youth are on psychotropic medicine with no oversight, officials said.
There are 460 youth living in the two-prison complex.
Slott said she has hired a contract psychiatrist to go to the school there once a week beginning May 14. He will commute from San Antonio, she said.
Because it is difficult to recruit child psychiatrists to Edinburg, the youth commission lets mentally ill youth there visit with a psychiatrist in Austin by teleconference. He is available eight hours a week, Slott said.
The psychiatric problems are among many the agency’s new leaders are trying to address, said youth commission spokesman Jim Hurley. He did not know of any plans to send a psychiatrist to Brownwood before May 14 but said the agency will do what it takes to get youth proper care.
Teleconferencing for health care, like that done at Evins, is becoming increasingly popular as a way to bring medical care to rural areas, Hurley said.
"Obviously, the best would be a face-to-face meeting, but if we’re having trouble making something available, we’ve got to do something to bring medical care," he said.
The intake unit in Marlin, near Waco, where all youth are processed, is "wholly inadequate" because it is not big enough and does not ensure patients’ confidential conversations with health providers won’t be overheard, said Sandra Ferrara, director of youth services for UTMB.
Whitmire asked why lawmakers didn’t learn of these problems sooner.
Dr. Ben Raimer, UTMB’s vice president and chief executive officer for community health services, said he told the Legislature that UTMB needed more money in years past, and even asked to get out of the contract.
"There is no oversight in the current system," he said.
Elizabeth Amazeen, the facility nurse manager at Giddings State School, where children who commit murder are sent, said in the past year she has seen more mentally ill and more violent youth in the infirmary.
"They are hurting each other; they are hurting the staff," Amazeen said.
"Our nurses are weary. They cannot keep up with the injuries they are seeing."
Elizabeth Hernandez covers the state capital for Valley Freedom Newspapers. She is based in Austin and can be reached at (512) 323-0622.