The Justice Department on Wednesday announced a federal investigation into the treatment of children and teens held in Texas state juvenile detention facilities, citing reports of widespread physical and sexual abuse by staff members.

Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said the pattern-or-practice probe will seek to determine whether officials at the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, which operates five detention centers, have denied youths of their constitutional rights. Last fall, local activists lodged a formal complaint with the Justice Department’s civil rights division, alleging abuse, staffing shortages, gang activity and a lack of mental health services.

“Because they are children who are still growing and developing, they are uniquely vulnerable to harm and abuse inside these institutions,” Clarke said, adding that the Justice Department was drawing on news reports and information provided by advocates in Texas. Such conditions, she said, “only leads to worse life outcomes” for the incarcerated.

The investigation marks the third major action on prison reform from the Justice Department in the past three months. In August, federal authorities announced a consent decree mandating change at New Jersey’s state-run Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women, after an investigation found instances of sexual abuse and other mistreatment of inmates. In September, authorities opened a probe into Georgia’s state prisons and its treatment of gay, lesbian and transgender prisoners.

In her remarks, Clarke said 11 staff members at juvenile facilities in Texas have been arrested for allegedly sexually abusing children in their care. She also cited reports of youths being choked, body-slammed, pepper-sprayed and kicked, and she questioned whether the state was providing adequate mental health treatment, highlighting two detained juveniles who died in apparent suicides.

“We are particularly troubled by the news coming out of the facility in our district, especially reports of misconduct by staff,” said Chad Meacham, acting U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas, who joined Clarke in the online news conference, along with the state’s three other U.S. attorneys.

Meacham was referring to the Ron Jackson State Juvenile Correctional Complex in Brownwood, Tex., the state’s only facility that houses girls. Thirty-four employees were fired at that site between 2013 and 2018, according to KTXS News. In 2017, a 13-year-old boy hanged himself there.

“If there are bad actors or systemic problems that are violating the young people’s rights, we are determined to root these things out,” Meacham said.

State leaders have also voiced concerns about the facilities. In July, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) requested an investigation from the Texas Department of Public Safety.

In a statement Wednesday, Camille Cain, executive director of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, said her office would fully cooperate with federal investigators.

“We all share the same goals for the youth in our care: providing for their safety, their effective rehabilitation, and the best chance for them to lead productive, fulfilling lives,” said Cain, who was appointed to the post in 2018.

Clarke said federal investigators will examine policy documents and reports, conduct interviews with officials and activists, evaluate incident reports and review training methods. She said the probe would encompass all juveniles held in state detention, potentially including migrant youths whose treatment by Texas state troopers has come under criticism from immigration advocates.

Texas operates five juvenile facilities, which held an average of 800 youths per day in 2019 and have been the subject of civil rights complaints for years. State officials have reduced the number of facilities from 12 in 2007, amid a push from judges to sentence fewer youth to detention. But advocates have continued to highlight problems and seek a greater reduction.

Brett Merfish, director of youth justice at Texas Appleseed, which filed the federal complaint last fall, said her organization petitioned the Justice Department to intervene with the state’s juvenile facilities in 2010. The state ultimately enacted changes that included the creation of an ombudsman to field reports of misconduct.

Merfish welcomed the new investigation, saying it coincides with a broader conversation among state officials and advocates over whether the juvenile facilities are “meeting the needs of our kids.”

“Our opinion is, ‘No, it’s harming our children,’ ” she said.