AUSTIN (Nexstar) — The third special session this year is less than two weeks away. Lawmakers will convene to tackle redistricting, which affects every Texan, and other issues that only impact a small population.
Nexstar’s Maggie Glynn spoke with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick about why he’s choosing to push a bill that would require Texas students to play in sports based on their biological sex again, after failing three times already.
Democrats and LGBTQ+ advocates call the bill anti-trans, but Patrick said that’s not the intent.
“We’re not trying to stop anyone or be, you know, harsh towards anyone who’s a transgender student. That’s not the point of this bill. What our bill says is that you should only be allowed to play the sport based on your birth certificate,” Patrick said.
Ricardo Martinez with Equality Texas, though, said the bill is looking to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.
“A UIL representative in the most recent hearing testified that he has only received a handful of inquiries about the rules, and could not give any numbers of trans students that are currently participating in sports,” Martinez explained.
But Patrick said there is evidence that it’s already happening.
“We’ve already had some trans kids in Texas win some championships from girls and around the country. So, it’s just going to happen more,” Patrick said.
Martinez also points to the detriments the debate of the bill has on the LGBTQ community, even before it has become law.
“We had a teacher in Katy, Texas call about the worst bullying she has seen in the 16 years that she’s been in this profession and that the target are trans kids,” Martinez said.
Patrick said he’s heard testimony when the bill has made its way through sessions in the past but hears from other constituents who have not testified as well.
“Well, of course, I’m always concerned about how anyone reacts to something that we would do in the legislature. But how about the mental health of a young lady? Or a young girl? How about the dreams of that girl? So if this is the case, we will totally undermine those opportunities at a certain point in time,” Patrick said.
State Sen. Sarah Eckhardt (D – Austin) said the bill is a distraction from the big issues lawmakers will tackle next session.
“This is an effort to keep the culture wars burning even through redistricting. So that attention will be diverted to a red meat issue, while we are dealing with real substantive governance issues that will affect us for the next decade,” Sen. Eckhardt said.
But Patrick said this bill is important, too.
“It’s very important, you know, we wouldn’t have it as a priority bill, the governor wouldn’t keep putting it on the call if it wasn’t,” Patrick said.
The third session officially begins Sept. 20.
Senator Cornyn seeks resources for suicide and crisis prevention calls
Calls to Integral Care, one of the four designated national suicide and crisis prevention sites in the state of Texas, are up 10% in the last year.
In 2020, the helpline handled over 270,000 calls and placed more than 120,000 follow-up calls to help ensure people were safe and receiving ongoing support.
If you or someone you know is in emotional distress or a suicidal crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at (800) 273-8255. More than 100 local crisis centers are a part of a national network working on this lifeline and are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
And beginning next year, it will become easier than ever to get in touch with someone, which could further drive up that demand for help. It’s why lawmakers want to provide more funding and better technology for those answering the calls.
Sen. John Cornyn visited the Travis County Integral Care site on Wednesday to share details about his bill, the Suicide and Crisis Outreach Prevention Enhancement (SCOPE) Act, which was recently filed in Congress. It increases awareness of the lifeline through outreach campaigns, collects data on the people utilizing the lifeline and increases capacity for the call centers by approximately tripling the funding currently being allocated.
“We’ve learned a lot from our mistakes in terms of our failures to deal with people experiencing mental health crises and of course, this affects every single family in Texas and America,” Cornyn said.
It’s a welcomed opportunity for people like Ca’Sonya who personally benefited from the thoughtful and compassionate help from workers at Integral Care. Five years ago, after her husband died by suicide, Ca’Sonya began contemplating her own.
Locally, Integral Care answers calls made to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline within Travis County. Calls are routed to their 24/7 Crisis Helpline. You can also find more information at Texas Suicide Prevention.
“I knew that I would not make it through the year without calling someone. I needed that help so desperately,” Ca’Sonya said. “I was devastated. We were each other’s only support system.”
Cornyn’s new bill would pay for more call-takers, add telephones and improve technology to expedite resources. The State of Texas also has plans to improve its ability to respond face-to-face with a caller and provide ongoing therapies to those who need it. It’s what’s called a “continuum of care.”
“Demand today exceeds available capacity in every community across the state,” said Lee Johnson, the Deputy Director of the Texas Council for Community Centers. “That lifeline system connects to a continuum of care which is so important for Texans.”
Demand is only going to increase next year when the nation unveils its new 988 call number. Similar to 911, it’s a three-digit number people can use if they are contemplating suicide or are undergoing a mental health crisis. 988 will go live to the entire nation beginning July 2022.
“It’s really a matter of ensuring the existing sites have adequate capacity to keep up with increased demand to leverage that technology and leverage those connections that already exist in the system,” Johnson said.
Ca’Sonya was proud to share her story on Wednesday. She encouraged people to place a call if they are distressed and undergoing a mental health crisis.
“They really do care, they really do support you. There are a wide variety of resources that they provide to you,” Ca’Sonya said. “Call the hotline if you need help. Just call, they are there. Twenty-four hours a day, they are willing and able to help you.”
Texas children sent to mental health facilities without parental consent
When Marie Shiesley heard her daughter was thinking of suicide, she was not shocked. Her then-13-year-old had an extremely difficult year: trouble at school and major surgery to remove a tumor from her brain, according to Shiesley.
Shiesley immediately went into action. She began looking up numbers for mental health professionals.
“Everybody was closed, but a lot of them left a message saying ‘If you are in a crisis – call this number,’” Shiesley said.
Shiesley said she was eventually told to go to a hospital in Austin, where workers were waiting on her and her daughter to arrive. She was hoping there would be a psychiatrist or therapist for her daughter to talk to. But, after they spoke to a worker, she says a police officer asked to speak to her daughter alone.
The conversation lasted fewer than 10 minutes, according to Shiesley. Then, she says the officer and worker said her 13-year-old was being admitted to a crisis facility.
“I thought it was a suggestion. I did not know at this point it was out of my hands. I didn’t know at this point, I’d lost all parental power and my child,” Shiesley said. “My child was being taken from me and brought somewhere I’ve never seen. I don’t know who’s handling anything. I didn’t get to research. She was just being taken from me right then and there.”
Shiesley says her daughter was taken to a crisis facility on what’s known as a peace officer emergency detention, or POED. In Texas, only two people can take a person to a mental health facility against their will: a judge and a peace officer. Neither needs parents’ permission to do it.
The state allows officers to detain a person and take them to an inpatient mental health facility, regardless of age, if they believe there is an imminent risk the person will harm themselves or others. The law also requires officers to assess whether emergency detention is the least restrictive option necessary to provide effective treatment.
The goal of the law is to help families in a mental health crisis get the help they need. Disability Rights’ Texas Senior Attorney Beth Mitchell, who handles cases dealing with emergency detentions every year, says she often sees the law misapplied.
“It’s a huge loss of liberty, and I think a lot of times it’s used inappropriately where someone could remain in the community with support and services,” Mitchell said. “I don’t think [parents] realize this can happen to a minor — to their own child — and the determination has not been made if the family is unable to care for the child.”
In Austin, and in Travis County, most emergency detentions happen without a warrant. A person can be held at the inpatient mental health facility for up to 48 hours – and a doctor is required to examine the person within 12 hours.
Since 2017, more than 1,500 minors in Austin have been involuntarily committed on police orders. More than 90% were ordered by the Austin Police Department. (This figure does not include data from the Travis County Sheriff’s Office. The office provided a cost estimate for more than $4,000 to provide a count of peace officer emergency detentions involving minors.)
Sgt. Mike King is over the Austin Police Department’s Crisis Intervention Unit. He says it’s a tool his officers can and do use but said during a mental health crisis – it’s sometimes best if they are not involved.
“If we can not involve law enforcement in the process, I think it is the best outcome for not just kids but adults as well,” Sgt. King said. “But, the reality of the situation is, in the state of Texas, law enforcement is the only entity that can actually take someone against their will if they meet certain criteria and that is how law enforcement is pulled into this sometimes. Sometimes people do not know who to call so they call 911.
Right now, the Austin Police Department is overhauling how it approaches training its officers. APD’s current policy only allows those who are certified as mental health officers, and on their Crisis Intervention Team, to order peace officer emergency detentions.
The department set a goal to get all its officers certified as mental health officers by 2022. But, the change APD is going through is not required by law.
In Texas, the legislature requires every new Texas peace officer to take a 40-hour basic crisis intervention course. But, the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement course that instructs officers on the legal applications related to mental health, when it is appropriate to order emergency detention, and how to evaluate whether emergency detention is the least restrictive option – is optional.
Sgt. Wayne Sneed is over the mental health unit for Austin Independent School District. In his own unit, they require all officers to be certified mental health officers.
“From my perspective, yes, yes — every officer should be certified. When you look at just the statistics on mental health calls — we have never declined in our calls for mental health services. When I talk to other departments, they have not seen a decline. Matter of fact, they’ve seen an increase,” Sgt. Sneed said.
“But yet, we still don’t have officers out there with the proper training and tools to make these decisions the way they need to be made,” Sgt. Sneed said. “It’s a recipe for disaster, in my opinion.”
Sgt. Sneed said it’s also not the answer to allow parents the final decision on whether their child needs to be taken to a crisis facility.
“I will say to you — the conversations I have had with parents where I wish they would have listened to me about how serious their child was about taking their life, we would not have buried many of the children we buried in these school districts,” Sgt. Sneed said.
The Mental Health Officer course is “undergoing a full review” according to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement’s Director of Governmental Relations, Gretchen Grigsby. The agency was granted additional resources this legislative session to address training needs, and according to Grigsby, the Mental Health Officer course is “currently top priority.”
Interviews with mental health officers reveal that while officers are facing an increase in mental health calls, the state has not required more in-depth training for officers who are allowed to order emergency detentions.
“We should be de-stigmatizing mental health care so it doesn’t end up in a crisis circumstance in the school or in the home, or in the street where a peace officer who maybe has received some training is having to deal with the circumstance with a very blunt instrument,” Texas Sen. Sarah Eckhardt said. “I think it is beneficial for law enforcement officers to have higher-level training in mental healthcare, particularly in the state of Texas where we have such low healthcare thresholds.”
In Texas, law enforcement agencies are not required to review their officers’ handling of peace officer emergency detentions each year. The law also doesn’t set requirements on how law enforcement agencies utilize mental health authorities in their training or during calls in which they order emergency detentions.
“This is an issue nationwide,” Sen. Eckhardt said. “We really do need to establish some new standards — and I am struggling to find where those best practices are in the United States.”
In Texas, a person can only be held in a mental health facility under the order of a peace officer emergency detention for 48 hours unless a judge signs an order of protective custody. It’s at this point a parent can sign their child out of a facility. In some cases, families can face a child protective services investigation if they choose to sign their child out against medical advice.
Shiesley says after two days in the facility, she signed her daughter out and started having her see a psychiatrist and a therapist three days a week.
“While she was in the hospital, I had psychiatrists and therapists lined up and I said this is what is going on. This is what is happening. What do we do as a parent? I don’t feel like she needs to be in a crisis center. She needs to be at home, and she needs to get some real help and therapy. And that’s exactly what we did,” Shiesley said. “There was a lot of work that we had to do, but we did it.”
“It’s a fine line between who you have to pluck and put away and who you don’t. I am not a professional. I can’t make that call, but in my situation — they made a bad call, and it really left my daughter traumatized.”
Integral Care provides crisis response to all schools in Travis County and has therapists based on campuses in Del Valle Independent School District, Pflugerville Independent School District and East Austin Charter School. The agency also works with Austin Police Department.
A spokesperson for Integral Care says if a child is mentioning suicidal thoughts or ideas, parents or minors can call Integral Care’s 24/7 at 512-472-HELP (4357.)
“Parents can call and get support navigating the situation. Youth can call as well if they need to talk to someone. If needed, we can send our Mobile Crisis Outreach Team to the family’s home to provide in-person support,” said Anne Nagelkirk with Integral Care.
Nagelkirk says if a person is at risk of harming themselves, call 911 and press 4 for mental health services. Integral Care mental health clinicians answer those calls and can dispatch our Expanded Mobile Crisis Outreach Team, Police or EMS depending on the need and situation.
Inmates released due to COVID brace for return to prison
Truck driver Kendrick Fulton wipes the sweat off his brow as he offloads another pallet of soda on a sweltering Austin afternoon. It’s hard work, but it beats the alternative.
“Man, listen, compared to what I’ve been through, this is a walk in the park,” he said. “The hardest day out here is nothing compared to being behind that fence or being behind that wall and hearing the cell door slam.”
Fulton, 49, is among more than 7,000 low-level federal prisoners, released temporarily due to the pandemic, who could soon be heading back behind bars.
“I always start out with, ‘You’re not supposed to be seeing me,’” Fulton said. “I’m not supposed to be here.”
He’s supposed to be at the Federal Correctional Institute in Beaumont serving the remainder of his sentence.
In 2003, a jury convicted him of conspiracy to possess and distribute more than five kilograms of cocaine and more than 50 kilograms of powder cocaine. His drug charge was nonviolent, but he was sentenced to 400 months — a little over 33 years — in federal prison. His appeals were denied.
“At the time, I was in my 20s. I was young, making bad choices,” he said, surprised at the time that the sentence was longer than he had been alive at that point.
“I sat in prison, many days, wishing I was double-jointed,” he added. “So I could kick myself for being in prison.”
The Federal Bureau of Prisons denied KXAN’s request to interview Fulton. Despite that, he wanted to share his story anyway. Fulton invited KXAN to meet him at a public park in Round Rock, close to where he is living with his sister.
His ankle monitor, strapped on tightly, is a constant reminder that even though he is out in public, he isn’t free.
“How does it feel to be out?” asked KXAN investigative reporter Matt Grant. “To not be in prison?”
“It feels great,” Fulton said. “Just breathe air, just see the trees, just see the scenery. You know, you’re not looking at a chain-link fence. You’re not looking at walls. So, it’s surreal.”
Last year, the Justice Department began allowing nonviolent prisoners at low risk of offending to be released on home confinement. The decision was meant to help slow the spread of COVID-19 in confinement. In January of this year, a DOJ legal memo determined prisoners must return once the pandemic ends.
“I’m hoping it don’t happen. I’m praying it don’t happen,” Fulton said. “In my heart of hearts, I don’t think it’s going to happen. But nobody wants that hanging over their head.”
In Texas, 467 federal prisoners are currently on home confinement under the CARES Act due to COVID-19 concerns. Across the country, 223 inmates were released and are now back behind bars due to unspecified “violations or new crimes,” the Federal Bureau of Prisons said.
KXAN has filed a public records request for all re-offenses committed by federal prisoners released on home confinement.
Nationwide, 7,499 federal prisoners are currently on release.
Violent criminals, sex offenders, terrorists and those who pose a safety risk to the public are ineligible for temporary release. Prison officials say they have “discretion to keep inmates on home confinement after the pandemic if they’re close to the end of their sentences.”
Fulton has served 18 years and still has at least a decade to go. He insists he is a changed man.
“There’s people that commit murder that don’t do 18 years,” he said. “If I got sentenced today, my sentence would be less…. Look at the fairness. Where’s the justice in that?”
Fulton was 30 when he was convicted and sentenced. He will be eligible for release in 2032, when he will be 58.
In 1986, Congress passed a law enacting mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking. The guidelines were reduced in 2010 under the Fair Sentencing Act.
Fulton was released to community confinement last September. In that time, he has reconnected with family and reintegrated into society. He has a new Apple Watch and is learning to navigate new technology and new roads. After his release, he got his Commercial Drivers License. He now hauls soda for Coca-Cola full time.
“I’m just trying to make the best of every day. I’m working hard. I’m doing what I can,” he said. “People ask me how I’m doing. I say, ‘Better than I deserve.’”
KXAN watched Fulton make a delivery at a fast-food restaurant in Austin. It was one of several stops that day. At this location, Tom Willi asked why he was being interviewed.
He then asked if Fulton wanted a job at his roofing company.
“I could tell that he was genuine,” Willi said. “He got out of prison for this release. He didn’t go back to that life of crime. He immediately jumped in and got a job. That’s what we want people to do when they get out of prison… What do we as a society get by sending him back to prison? It’s only going to cost us money and serves no greater purpose.”
Fulton blogs about his experiences and wears a hat that says “Life in the Feds.” He hopes to spark conversations and discourage others from going down the path he did.
He finds strength through his faith but worries without presidential intervention, his time on the outside is running out.
KXAN reached out to the White House for comment but did not hear back.
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice says it does not release people incarcerated by the state for COVID-19 reasons. Most parolees have to complete a treatment program, and victims should have a voice in the process, state prison officials said.
One victims’ rights group in Texas says it would only be concerned if people with violent backgrounds were let out.
Federal prisoners that were released under the CARES Act in Texas have committed nonviolent offenses, mostly for drugs, records show.
“I’m hopeful. I’m optimistic,” Fulton said. “I would hope the president would see our stories, hear our stories and grant clemency, so we can really get on with our lives.”