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Critical Safety Issues Plague State Juvenile Detention Centers, Report Says

A room in the Lincoln Village Regional Juvenile Detention Center.
A room in the Lincoln Village Regional Juvenile Detention Center.

Kentucky’s juvenile detention centers overuse isolation rooms and lack basic mental health care for the thousands of youths that cycle through the system each year, a state consultant has concluded after an eight-month review.

The newly released report states that the commonwealth’s detention centers had no mental health professionals on staff, no special education teachers and an excessively punitive culture that leaves too many youth confined alone to their rooms.

The state Department of Juvenile Justice hired the Center for Children’s Law and Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization, in February to identify “significant concerns that warranted DJJ’s immediate attention.” The move followed internal investigations and staffing changes spurred by 16-year-old Gynnya McMillen’s in-custody death in January 2016 at Lincoln Village Regional Juvenile Detention Center.

“A court would almost certainly find that the use of these isolation cells, when coupled with the lack of contact that youth have with programming and other youth and adults, is a violation of a youth’s constitutional rights,” the report said.

The consultants also raised questions about the department’s internal oversight, because the overuse of room confinement had never been identified or raised as a problem in the DJJ’s own audits.

DJJ Commissioner Carey Cockerell said the department is taking the findings very seriously and moving quickly to implement changes as necessary.

“I am confident our kids are being treated safely,” Cockerell said.

Cockerell was hired in August 2016 to replace Bob Hayter, who was fired weeks after Gynnya’s death. Cockerell said he has posted positions for qualified mental health professionals and reviewing confinement practices as well as creating a steering committee to review the report’s findings. Some of the changes, though, will require staff buy-in, balancing safety with a culture shift toward positive reinforcement.

The review cost about $130,000, according to a DJJ spokesman.

Overall, the consultants found facilities run with restrictive rules that ignore basics of adolescent development: in some locations, children are forbidden from talking during lunch, unable to move without first getting permission from a staffer and punished for infractions as minor as looking at another resident. As a result, overworked and low-paid staffers use isolation as punishment too often when no children are in danger.

The state runs seven detention centers, which are similar to an adult jail in that youth are held there before court.

The review focused on the detention centers in Fayette, Breathitt and McCracken counties and didn’t include any youth development centers, which are more similar to adult prisons and hold youth after a judge orders them to be committed to DJJ custody.

Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Secretary John Tilley said he started planning for an external review when he took office — days before Gynnya's death.

An autopsy found that Gynnya died of a rare heart condition known as sudden cardiac arrhythmia. Her death exposed problems with supervision in the facility; several workers were fired after an investigation showed they skipped several of the required safety checks on Gynnya and falsified logs saying they had checked on her well-being.

Two workers pleaded guilty in August to misdemeanor misconduct. Gynnya’s family filed a civil suit last year against the state and a roster of staffers, although a judge has dismissed the state from the suit. That case is still pending.

“We’ve committed to being transparent and accountable,” Tilley said. “We want to make certain that how we are taking care of (youth) is a matter of public record.”

In two facilities, youth spent most of the day confined to their rooms — and all three facilities operated isolation cells with inconsistent staff monitoring, which the consultants considered a serious safety concern. Youth also didn’t have enough access to lodge grievances and administrative staff treat the complaints as adversarial, according to the report.

Mental health assessments are conducted over the phone. Youth in the state’s detention facilities wait an average of 30 days to see a psychiatrist, which is longer than the average resident spends there. Other medical roles were also vacant, and one facility had only a single nurse on staff. Youth detainees couldn’t make a sick visit on weekends, nights or if the nurse had a day off.

Cockerell said DJJ found money in its existing budget, much of it savings from declining incarceration, to hire a qualified mental health professional for each facility and resume a push for more nurses. Recruiting for rural areas is a challenge, Cockerell said, and even contracting with staffing companies hasn’t adequately filled the gaps.

Children with disabilities also lack appropriate resources in the facilities, even though the detention centers are legally obligated to provide services to kids with special educational needs. The consultants found evidence that school staff were changing student’s education plans, and removing services kids were entitled to, because those services weren’t available in detention.

Cockerell noted that local school districts provide DJJ with teaching staff, and he said the department is working on improved communication with school districts to address the problem.

Consultants noted that the lack of appropriate services left inadequately trained youth workers as the front-line response for children with special needs and mental health issues. Coupled with high turnover and forced double-shifts, staffing also affects DJJ’s ability to supervise youth safely and humanely, the report said.

Early this year, Gov. Matt Bevin announced 20 percent pay increases for youth workers through DJJ’s facilities, an attempt to improve recruiting and retention for the demanding jobs. Tilley said the pay raises have helped some with hiring, but turnover is still far too high. Entry-level jobs at the detention centers now pay around $13 an hour.

Kate Howard can be reached at  khoward@kycir.org and (502) 814.6546.

Kate Howard is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

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