Private settlement reached in wrongful death lawsuit against Brooklawn
This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center.
Uspiritus-Brooklawn and the estate of 7-year-old Ja’Ceon Terry reached a private settlement in a wrongful death lawsuit, just days after the judge ruled that a former employee could override her confidentiality agreement and testify about mistreatment she said she witnessed while working there.
Terry was taken into state custody in 2021 and later admitted to the Uspiritus-Brooklawn psychiatric treatment facility in Louisville. On July 17, 2022, two employees placed the 7-year-old in a physical restraint for five to six minutes. He suffered multiple injuries, including respiratory failure due to suffocation, and died at the hospital later that day. The Jefferson County Medical Examiner ruled the death a homicide. Officials with the Louisville Metro Police Department have said a criminal investigation is ongoing. The two employees involved with the hold were fired in September.
Uspiritus officials declined to comment on the settlement. According to court documents, the agency denied that their employees assaulted Terry, or that they were liable for damages.
In January, the lawyers representing Ja’Ceon Terry’s family subpoenaed Nicole Richardson to testify. Richardson is a former employee of Uspiritus-Brooklawn who filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against them in 2020. The case was settled this year.
“During my employment with [Uspiritus], I complained on numerous occasions that patients/residents were abused,” Richardson wrote in an affidavit filed with the court.
Richardson said she witnessed other staff members “dragging a naked juvenile on the floor,” “waterboarding a juvenile with a cooler full of water” and threatening residents with violence.
Uspiritus tried to prevent Richardson from testifying in the case involving Terry, saying she agreed to confidentiality and nondisparagement terms that prevent her from testifying about the claims in her own lawsuit. The agency also claimed her testimony was not relevant to the case involving Terry because she didn’t work at the facility at the time of his death, and also worked in a different unit than where he was housed.
The lawyers representing Terry’s estate disagreed, calling Richardson’s information “without a doubt relevant.”
“Had Uspiritus listened to Nicole Richardson and others only a few years earlier, and taken action, it's very likely that other children wouldn’t have been hurt and 7-year-old Ja’Ceon Terry wouldn’t have suffered a horrific death,” they wrote.
On May 9, Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Jessica Green denied Uspiritus’ motion to block the former employee from testifying. Two days later, the agency reached a settlement with Ja’Ceon Terry’s family, according to a letter from the mediator to the judge.
Terry’s estate’s attorneys didn’t respond to requests for comment. Richardson, the former Uspiritus-Brooklawn employee, couldn’t be reached.
More details emerge from the lawsuit
The state hasn’t released any details about what happened before employees placed Terry in a hold that day. But a portion of Uspiritus employee Amanda Whitlow’s deposition was included in court documents. She testified that she had Terry under control when two of her colleagues physically intervened, and he was calm and laughing before the other employees put him in a hold.
“Deep down in my heart, I know I had it under control,” she said. “We were smiling, laughing at each other. I tried not to laugh because I’m trying to be serious, but it was kinda funny because he was trying to hit me with the water bottle.”
The two employees who put Terry in a hold – Deborah Francis and Jillian Parks – asserted their Fifth Amendment right and declined to testify, according to an order issued by the court.
No criminal charges have been filed.
The Cabinet for Health and Family Services has since revoked the license for Uspiritus-Brooklawn’s psychiatric residential treatment facility, citing “areas of non-compliance that ultimately led to the death of a child,” and they stopped placing children in Brooklawn’s other programs for 10 months. However, they resumed placements at Brooklawn’s residential care and independent living facilities in May, saying Uspiritus has taken steps to address the problems, including increased training and the dismissal of staff.
Support for this story was provided in part by the Jewish Heritage Fund.