At this time, TJJD will not accept transfers from county facilities where staff or youth have tested positive for COVID-19. That decision currently affects Dallas, Harris, and Bowie counties.

Everyone – especially young people -- needs encouragement from loved ones.

Which is why TJJD arranges family visits for its youth on weekends and designated weeknights, and hosts special periodic “Family Days” with games and food so families can get together at a festive occasion at TJJD campuses.

Still, busy working parents and guardians cannot always make the drive or fit their schedule around visitation. That’s when technology comes to the rescue.

A.E. speaks with his mother.

Thanks to the universality of cell phones and easy-to-use apps like FaceTime, Skype and Hangouts, caseworkers and family liaisons are able to offer families “virtual visits” with their son or daughter.

Virtual visits started in earnest in fiscal 2016, and took off like wildfire. The number of virtual visits across all TJJD facilities jumped from 178 that year to 2,398 in fiscal 2018 – a more than 12-fold increase.

“The kids love it and they ask for it all the time,” says Janet Sheelar, administrative assistant in family and community relations at Giddings State School.

Sheelar, who has supervised some virtual visits, is convinced they help youth maintain stability during periods of worry or separation anxiety. She recounted one virtual visit in which a young man who’d come to TJJD after being in foster care was able to Skype with a sister, also in foster care, with whom he’d lost touch.

“He missed her greatly,” Sheelar said, and the virtual reunion helped both of them emotionally.

Watching A.E., age 16, embrace the iPad during a recent animated chat with his mother, it’s easy to see how virtual visits can bring a youth peace of mind. Though the image bobbed, blurred and even froze for a second or two, it was clearly mom on her phone, walking as she talked and offering glimpses of home.

Rapt, A.E. leaned in so close it’s a wonder his breath didn’t fog the screen. He hadn’t seen his mother for several months because she was uneasy about making an in-person visit to the Evins Regional Juvenile Center.

That’s a concern familiar to staff at the TJJD secure facility in Edinburg about 25 miles from the US-Mexico border.

Even when parents have current work visas, if they’ve immigrated from Mexico, they may be reluctant to visit, said Elva Benitez, family liaison for the Evins campus. They are concerned about interacting with any officials, even juvenile justice officers. Some also worry about passing through highway checkpoints set up inside Texas to intercept contraband or illegal immigrants.

Elva Benitez Speaks With Youth After Family VisitElva Benitez visits with A.E.
In some cases, a parent or grandparent is on the Mexico side of the border and worried they will be wrongly detained in the US, which could cost them their job back home.

“They just can’t face coming to a facility,” Benitez explained.

More often, however, the barrier to visiting is economic. Many other families may not have a trustworthy vehicle or feel they can spare the gas money for the trip to Evins from Houston or San Antonio, Benitez said.

Sometimes the South Texas Youth Council steps in to help. A non-profit organized to assist at-risk and incarcerated youth in the Edinburg-McAllen-Harlingen region of the Rio Grande Valley, the council gives gifts to the young men at Evins and underwrites special events, like the traditional holiday feast for staff and youth, which this year featured 900 tamales handmade by a volunteer.

During its December meeting, the council voted to give $60 to a San Antonio family to help them attend their son’s high school graduation at Evins and $32 to another San Antonio family for gas money so they could witness a religious ceremony marking their son’s completion of Catholic classes.

With so many parents of TJJD youth facing economic difficulties, the virtual visits have been a virtual godsend, say Benitez and Sheelar.

Benitez sets a goal of offering a virtual chat monthly to every youth on her list who has not seen his parents or guardians in person for several weeks. After calling the parents, she sets a time that enables the youth to come after school hours. On the day of the visit, she calls again to remind the family of the electronic meeting, because sometimes their availability has changed. This practice has helped avert disappointed youth, she says, because she can alert them about any rescheduling before they arrive.

A youth visits with relatives at Giddings State School.

When he gets to her office in the social services building, the youth is seated in a corner, facing away from Benitez, but with the screen visible to her. This helps her monitor the visit, but also affords the youth privacy. She works at her desk during the chat, which can last up to a half hour.

The addition of these visits has added to her job duties, and made time management even more crucial.

But it’s worth it, Benitez says, because at the end of these often emotional sessions, the benefit is clear.

“I like to see those smiles,” she said. “That’s very rewarding.”

“I say kudos to whoever thought of doing it this way. It’s easy. And the boys very much look forward to it.” At the end, “the boys say, ‘Thank you very much, Ms. Benitez!’ And also the parents are very humble. They’re very appreciative of the FaceTime session.”