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Jerry Larson  

Texas Tech Baylor Football

Baylor wide receiver Denzel Mims (15) catches a pass against Texas Tech defensive back Damarcus Fields (23) in the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, November 24, 20178, in Arlington, Texas.

First woman elected as McLennan County commissioner ready to hit ground running
 Cassie L Smith  / 

With the campaign season finally over and voter rolls certified, Pat Chisolm-Miller said the fact she became the first woman elected to a McLennan County commissioners seat is slowly starting to sink in.

Her platform for the Precinct 2 seat centered on her two decades of experience in the precinct office, and while she knew she had an opportunity to break that local glass ceiling, she did not want voters to cast their ballot for that reason alone.

“I wanted people to hear me articulate what I knew about county government and what my vision would be for the precinct,” she said. “They were going to see I was a woman. They were going to see I was an African-American. I wanted them to hear that I could be a credible, qualified county commissioner.”

Officially taking office Jan. 1, Chisolm-Miller, 60, will be moving on from her 23 years as administrative assistant to Commissioner Lester Gibson and stepping into her boss’ seat as he retires.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

“I wanted people to hear me articulate what I knew about county government and what my vision would be for the precinct,” Pat Chisolm-Miller said. “They were going to see I was a woman. They were going to see I was an African-American. I wanted them to hear that I could be a credible, qualified county commissioner.”

But her upcoming “first day” is more of a formality than anything, as work continues across the precinct, projects are underway and paperwork and bills are in need of processing. The difference is, she will no longer just be making recommendations, she said. She will put forth her own plans before her fellow commissioners, with her own name attached.

Identifying road projects throughout Precinct 2 to tackle in the spring will be the first priority, Chisolm-Miller said. As that process unfolds she plans to test a recommendation from a firm that surveyed the roads and to take a more scientific approach to addressing the needs.

Road conditions were a prominent issue in the campaign, raised by residents in the unincorporated areas of the precinct and by the candidates themselves.

There is always a divide during an election as candidates secure their base, she said. But once it’s all over, what the constituents want is to be and feel heard and have their problems addressed, she said. Any divide that formed in the precinct during the election will fade away as the communities come back together, she said.

“I really do think if they see that we are attempting to actually solve that problem out there, I think that the individuals out there will come to understand that we don’t want them to have bad roads, but we need to find out the solution so they will not have bad roads,” she said.

County Judge Scott Felton said he looks forward to working with Chisolm-Miller on the commissioners court and ensuring she receives any assistance needed to succeed and provide for the taxpayers.

“I think she made a statement in her campaign that she put capabilities above everything else,” Felton said. “The results showed there were a lot of people confident in her doing the job no matter if she was male or female.”

Precinct 1 had a close race in March 2016, but it did not seem to attract the same attention as the recently concluded Precinct 2 race, Felton said. In March 2016, incumbent Kelly Snell beat challenger Cory Priest by 25 votes.

There are several projects on the horizon for county commissioners to focus on outside their day-to-day work consumed largely by managing their precinct’s road and bridge crew.

Chisolm-Miller said she is excited about the overhaul of a 60-acre site anchored by the Extraco Events Center grounds, which will be paid for with a “venue tax” on rental cars and hotel stays that voters approved in May 2017.

“I’m excited about the venue project and how that is going to shape up, not just for Waco but all of McLennan County,” Chisolm-Miller said. “I think it’s going to have an impact across the state too. We’re talking about creating a venue area out there that should draw people from across the state and that’s really exciting.”

After she officially takes office, she also wants to look into putting more money in the county’s pauper burial program and pushing for more educational efforts on its indigent care program, she said.

As the lone Democratic voice on the McLennan County Commissioners Court, Chisolm-Miller said she is not worried about the her working relationship with the other elected officials, because she has already worked closely with them for years. Chisolm-Miller said she has a positive working rapport with the other commissioners and the judge.

“I think we have the same goals and that is that we want to give quality efficient services to the citizens of McLennan County,” she said. “I think as a Democrat, maybe my ideology from time to time may be different but I foresee us being able to always come to a consensus.”

Almost 41 percent of registered voters in Precinct 2 turned out for the hotly contested race between Chisolm-Miller and D.L. Wilson, a Mart Republican and retired Texas Department of Public Safety sergeant. Countywide, turnout for the November midterm hit more than 54 percent of registered voters.

Chisolm Miller won with 6,452 votes, or 58.3 percent, while Wilson received 4,615 votes, or 41.7 percent.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte, file  

Pat Chisolm-Miller celebrates after looking at election returns Nov. 6. She won the Precinct 2 seat long held by her boss, Lester Gibson, and is the first woman elected to the McLennan County Commissioners Court.

To be the first woman elected to a county commissioners seat is a responsibility, Chisolm-Miller said. In 1976, a woman was appointed to fill the remaining year of a Precinct 3 term, but she never ran for the seat, Chisolm-Miller said.

“That is an awesome responsibility to carry on your shoulders because I want young women and young girls to know the sky is the limit and you can do anything that you can set your heart to,” she said. “But politics is not for the faint of heart. Public service is a special calling. I’m glad this election shows them that if this is what you want to do then go ahead and do it because the glass ceiling’s been broke.”

Jose Yau  

Caleb Nolan (left) and John Nolan hammer a piece of metal during the Forging an Axe demonstration at the 31st annual Homestead Fair.

Volunteers work to get flood-damaged Lake Waco park open for fishing tournament
 Kristin Hoppa  / 

For the first time in about two months, avid lake-goers, fishermen and community members got a look Saturday afternoon at damage to Twin Bridges Park after floodwaters ravaged the recreation area. They also got to work cleaning up.

“We always fish out here, so we are really out here just to help out,” said David Ross, 28, a member on Fish On Waco, one of the cleanup organizers. “There is a lot of trees and brush, but we are going to get it picked up.”

Ross joined dozens of volunteers with Fish On, the Group W Bench Litter Patrol and Keep Waco Beautiful on Saturday in an effort to get the park open and ready for a fishing tournament scheduled next weekend. The park, and several other shelter, camping and recreation sites around Lake Waco, have been closed since flooding caused the lake to rise more than 20 feet above its normal elevation.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

Courtney Heuring, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers natural resource specialist, helps volunteers get ready for a cleanup event Saturday at Twin Bridges Park, one of several Lake Waco parks damaged by recent flooding.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

Volunteers David Ross (right) and Steven Niswanger work to remove debris at Twin Bridges Park. Dozens of volunteers pitched in, in an effort to get the area reopened ahead of a fishing tournament scheduled for Saturday.

“This is a good thing that everyone is doing, so we want to clean it up and keep them clean,” volunteer Monica Davis said. “It is hard to believe there is so much debris in the water, because look at all the tables and how far they moved. You know that water is powerful.”

Volunteers moved large picnic tables back under camp shelters after floodwaters scattered the campsite fixtures around the park grounds. Courtney Heuring, a natural resource specialist at Lake Waco, said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the lake and surrounding parks, hopes to have Twin Bridges Park completely reopened by next weekend for the Fish On competition scheduled Saturday.

“We hope to get the electric turned back on early this week, the toilets pumped out and clean up all the debris in the parking lot and boat ramp,” Heuring said. “We had huge logs across the roads and you definitely couldn’t get a boat down the boat ramp, but we want to get everything back open and safe for the public out here.”

As volunteers hauled debris from the campgrounds, Heuring recalled last month’s steady rains that pushed the lake’s elevation to about 482 feet above sea level, or 20 feet higher than normal.

By mid-week, the last available reading from the National Weather Service, Lake Waco had fallen to 464.92 feet, approaching normal.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte 

Volunteer Michael Solis piles up debris left behind in Twin Bridges Park after Lake Waco floodwaters receded.

“There are trees everywhere, a lot of benches in the wrong place, but luckily it’s dried up, which is a good thing,” Group W board member Larry Gold said. “I was expecting it to be worse, but the water cleaned itself a little bit.”

Heuring said several camping and recreation sites around the lake, including Airport Park and the adjacent Airport Beach day-use area, were more severely damaged. The Corps is continuing to evaluate other parks and make a plan for getting them reopened, she said.

“A lot of our parks around the lake have this exact situation around them,” Heuring said. “The (Twin Bridges Park) didn’t get much structural damage to any of our shelters, so we are hoping we can get it open first.”

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

Volunteers gather at Twin Bridges Park for a cleanup event Saturday.

Other facilities will likely be opened by April, when the normal winter off-season ends, Heuring said. Corps officials are still assessing damage to roads, electrical systems, restrooms and playgrounds.

“It’s a lot of work, but we need to get this back open for everyone to enjoy it,” Gold said. “We need to take care of our parks.”

Fights, escapes, harm: Migrant kids struggle in facilities

HOUSTON — In one government facility for immigrant youth, a 20-year-old woman who had lied that she was 17 sneaked a needle out of a sewing class and used it to cut herself.

In another, cameras captured a boy repeatedly kicking a child in the head after they got into an argument on the soccer field.

One 6-year-old tried to run away from the same facility after another boy threw his shoes into the toilet. Three employees had to pull the boy off a fence and carry him back into a building.

Records obtained by The Associated Press highlight some of the problems that plague government facilities for immigrant youth at a time when President Donald Trump’s administration has been making moves in recent weeks that could send even more migrant children into detention.

About 14,000 immigrant children are currently detained in more than 100 facilities nationally, with about 5,900 in Texas. Many crossed the border without their parents and are having to wait longer in detention to be placed with relatives or sponsors, who are being dissuaded to come forward out of fear they’ll be arrested and deported.

Hundreds of children who were separated from their parents earlier this year were also detained in these facilities, but most of them have since been released to their parents.

Amid the global uproar over family separation, the Trump administration presented the facilities as caring, safe places for immigrant children.

But as records obtained by the AP show, the child detention system is already overtaxed. Children are acting out, sometimes hitting each other and trying to escape, and staff members struggle to deal with escalating problems.

Doctors have warned for months about the consequences of detaining children for long periods of time, particularly after most of them had fled violence and poverty in Central America and undertaken the dangerous journey to the U.S.

“Being in detention can be a form of trauma,” said Dr. Alan Shapiro, a pediatrician who works directly with immigrant children. “We can’t treat children for trauma while we’re traumatizing them at the same time.”

Southwest Key Programs, a Texas-based nonprofit, operates the facilities where the three incidents occurred. In Arizona, the organization agreed in October to close two facilities and stop accepting more children at others as part of a settlement with the state, which was investigating whether the organization conducted adequate background checks of staff. One former employee was convicted this year of sexually abusing multiple boys.

Meanwhile, in Texas, Southwest Key is pushing to expand. It has sued Houston after local officials tried to stop the opening of a facility.

In a statement, Southwest Key said it reported all three incidents on its own and that it was committed to correcting any problems.

“As long as immigrant children are forced to leave their homes due to violence and poverty, we want to provide them with compassionate care and help reunify them with family safely and quickly,” the group said.

Southwest Key’s facilities are licensed by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, which inspects child detention centers and released inspection records to the AP.

The U.S. government has also set up a temporary facility in Tornillo, Texas, that isn’t licensed by the state because it’s located on federal property. There, roughly 1,800 children are housed in large tents at much higher costs than the licensed facilities. That’s up from 320 in June, at the height of the family separation crisis.

One facility that was repeatedly flagged was Casa El Presidente in Brownsville, Texas, operated by Southwest Key.

As parents were being arrested and separated from their infants and young children, Casa El Presidente became one of three Texas “tender age” facilities that took in their kids. A group of congressmen who visited in June said the facility had an infant room with high chairs and toys, where staff members were caring for babies.

Casa El Presidente multiplied in size during the family separation crisis. According to the state’s monthly head counts, the facility went from 56 children in June to 367 in the most recent count taken Nov. 15.

A shift supervisor told a state inspector on June 26 that more staff were quitting and that workers “struggle with implementing healthy boundaries for children of this age.”

“He admitted staff are afraid to touch the children,” the inspector wrote in a report.

The supervisor said Casa El Presidente had to change its policy on restraining young children who were misbehaving, because holding them for too short a time was “escalating instead of de-escalating.” Southwest Key said an example of a typical restraint would be holding a child’s arm or shoulder, and that it doesn’t use mechanical restraints.

The facility was cited for improperly restraining a 6-year-old boy who tried in July to climb a playground fence and run away.

The boy was identified in an inspection report by his first name, Osman. Staff members told an inspector that two days before Osman ran to the fence, two other boys had placed his shoes in a toilet. Osman “also expressed frustration about being in the shelter away from his family,” the report said.

Three staff members eventually carried Osman away from the fence and back into the building.

The same month, two boys named Luis and Franklin got into a fight after Luis apparently kicked a soccer ball that Franklin said belonged to him. An inspector who viewed the facility’s video wrote that Franklin chased Luis and punched him, causing Luis to fall.

“Franklin starts to kick him, once again making contact and kicking Luis in the face,” the inspector wrote. Employees “never make efforts to move Franklin away from Luis; the staff just hold him.”

The inspector cited the facility for not properly intervening to stop the kicks.

At Casa Rio Grande in San Benito, Texas, one of the people living there was a 20-year-old who told the staff she was 17. An investigation report identified her as Julia.

Julia told an inspector that she took a needle from a sewing class and used it to cut herself because “she felt alone.” She hid her wrist for around two weeks under a sweater, but when she forgot to wear her sweater one day, a staff member spotted the marks.

In each case, inspectors interviewed other minors detained at the facility. According to the reports, the other youth said they were treated well, had enough food, and felt respected by the staff.

Jeff Eller, a spokesman for Southwest Key, acknowledged that staff morale has suffered this year due to the unprecedented demands.

“We are against family separations at the border,” Eller said. “Keeping families together is better for the children, parents, and communities.”

Jose Yau  

Daphne Stanton (5) (left) of Irving, TX interacts with Dora Claiborne (35) (right) during the Cotton Preparation and Spinning at the Homestead Fall Fair on Friday, November 23, 2018 in Waco, TX. Staff Jose Yau