KCBD Investigates: Texas mother buries teenage son, advocates for additional mental health resources in state facilities

Published: Jun. 8, 2023 at 10:03 PM CDT
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LUBBOCK, Texas (KCBD) - On March 24, 2023, Texas Department of Criminal Justice staff reported they found 16-year-old Joshua Beasley unresponsive in his cell.

The state rules his death as suicide.

Nine months before Beasley’s death, his mother sat before the Texas Juvenile Justice Department’s Safety and Security Committee and begged.

“I am not here to complain, and I am not here to nag about the justice system. I am here to beg and plead to help my child,” Freelen said.

Freelen said her son entered the juvenile justice system when he was 11 years old.

He turned 16 in August 2022.

“He has been in four of your five state facilities,” Freelen said.

Freelen said she started noticing injuries on her son when she video-chatted with him.

“He has had staples; he has had stitches. He has been in the hospital 12 times for self-harm since March of 2021,” Freelen said.

Freelen told the committee members that her son had suffered from mental health issues since he was a child.

She told the committee when her son entered TJJD, she was told he would get the help he needed.

“It’s worse than it’s ever been,” Freelen said.

“He is not doing this because he is a bad kid, he is not hurting himself for attention, he is doing it because conditions are that bad,” Freelen said.

Freelen said she started to request TJJD records on her son and what she learned was troubling.

“It is a mother’s worse nightmare. I can’t even finish reading them,” Freelen said.

“My child has experienced numerous amounts of trauma, neglect, and abuse physical and sexual,” Freelen said.

Freelen said her son was currently in the North Texas State Hospital’s main location in Vernon.

The campus provides inpatient psychiatric services to adults, children, and adolescents involved in the criminal justice system.

“He is in the hospital, and he is doing very well. He is healing. He is not self-harming, and they are fixing to send him back to TJJD where it is not safe at all,” Freelen said.

Despite Freelen’s plea, her son was discharged from the hospital and shortly after his 16th birthday, transferred to an adult prison.

Beasley’s death occurred as the Texas Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights was in the middle of an examination of the agency.

The Committee released an abbreviated report ahead of schedule due to the urgency of its findings.

The report reads in part, “Joshua’s story, as told by his mother Amnisty, made personal the Committee’s concerns about (1) access to mental health resources for youth confined in TJJD facilities; (2) their ability to report abuse, mistreatment, and denial of rights in a safe, private manner without fear of repercussion; and (3) the overall state and effectiveness of these facilities in their current form. What we have learned through this process is deeply concerning to the Committee, and for every day that it continues unchecked we feel is another day that the rights of those held in TJJD facilities are violated.”

The Committee reported in 2021, 69 percent of youth were identified at intake as having moderate to severe mental health needs, compared to 21 percent in 2014.

It also reported a rise in self-harm and suicide. According to its report, in 2021, there were more than 2,000 incidents of self-harm reported and 6,500 suicide alerts in Texas’ state-secured youth facilities...More than half of the youth in these facilities have been put on suicide watch.

About two weeks before Beasley’s death, State Representative James Talarico (D-50) hosted a news conference where he introduced legislation to close state juvenile detention centers, saying the population is made up of some of the most vulnerable children in the state.

“Ninety-five percent have experienced household trauma. Ninety-one percent of the girls in our system are likely sex trafficking victims and eighty-four percent have serious unmet mental health needs,” Talarico said.

The legislation proposed a staggered closure of the state’s five remaining juvenile prisons by 2030.

“Despite decades of reforms, this system still abuses and traumatizes kids every day,” Talarico said.

House Bill 4356 would have replaced the Texas Juvenile Justice Department with a new office of Youth Safety and Rehabilitation.

“That office would use the savings from closing child prisons to fund a system that actually rehabilitates kids closer to home including secure rehab centers for our toughest cases,” Talarico said.

Talarico’s bill died in committee.

Freelen continues to advocate for more mental health resources for those within the confines of state facilities; the same message she shared at the State Capital nine months before her son’s death.

“Our children shouldn’t have to live like this, and they shouldn’t have to suffer. We should be able to trust our children in TJJD care,” Freelen said.

TJJD responded to the Texas State Advisory Committee’s report pointing out that Beasley did not die in a juvenile facility.

TJJD also released new staffing numbers, reporting 61 percent of its mental health positions and 80 percent of its treatment positions are filled.

We will continue to follow the juvenile justice system as new legislation has made its way to the governor’s desk.