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Kentucky’s response to the juvenile justice crisis lacks focus on mental health

Kentucky politicians are calling for an investigation into Department of Juvenile Justice facilities such as the Warren Regional Juvenile Detention Center.
Department of Juvenile Justice
Department of Juvenile Justice
Two assaults involving youth detainees recently took place in the Warren Regional Juvenile Detention Center in Bowling Green.

After reports of violence from Kentucky’s juvenile detention facilities, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshearannounced a series of fixes, including raising pay for guards and other workers, boosting security and separating youth inmates by gender and severity of offense.

Leaders of the Republican-led Legislature have laid out their own proposals, calling for an outside investigation into the troubled agency—which has had five commissioners in eight years—and urging the administration to bring in a “trustee” to oversee reforms in the agency, much like a company is restructured after a bankruptcy.

But the discussion of potential solutions has largely ignored mental health interventions for detained youth and workers, experts say.

Several riots were reported at youth facilities in Boyd, McCracken and Warren counties in recent years. At the Adair Regional Juvenile Detention Center in November, a staff member was injured and a girl was sexually assaulted by another inmate.

During his State of the Commonwealth address earlier this year, Beshear acknowledged the crisis and said the administration was committed to fixing the system.

“Our juvenile justice system was put in place 20 years ago, and was not designed to handle this type of offender. This has put our workers as well as the young people housed in these facilities in danger,” he said.

The crisis has been brewing for years.

In 2017, a state consultant said Kentucky’s juvenile detention centers overuse isolation rooms and lack basic mental health care for the thousands of youths that cycle through the system. The group was hired after internal investigations after 16-year-old Gynnya McMillen’s in-custody death at a Hardin County detention center in 2016.

The Lexington Herald-Leader has closely followed the issue for years, reporting a grim picture of the facilities. In a recent report, the newspaper showed that the department had been warned warned of dangerous conditions ahead of the riot and sexual assault at the Adair County facility.

“Youths were being mistreated in various ways, often isolated in cells not as punishment but because that made it easier for the thinly stretched staff to keep control,” the story stated.

Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Secretary Kerry Harvey said in an interview with Kentucky Public Radiolast weekthat the department couldn’t make decisions off of anonymous accounts in the Herald Leader’s reporting.

“It's not as useful to say ‘we've talked to some people, but we can't tell you who they are,’” he said. “When they say generally there's a bad atmosphere in the facility, that doesn't give us a lot in terms of specifics to address.”

Harvey said legislators’ recommendation to overhaul department leadership and bring an outside trustee would undo the department’s work over the last few years.

“We started trying to address these issues quite some time ago. So I don't think it would be useful to just undo all of the good work that's been done and say, ‘we're going to start all over,’” he said.

Governor, legislators push for reforms

Faced with criticism about the youth facilities, Beshear announced a number of changes in recent weeks.

Beshear approved higher starting salaries for youth workers, taking them to $50,000 a year and provided pepper spray and tasers as “defensive equipment” to use if necessary inside the facilities.

He also sent state troopers to be stationed at facilities in Fayette, Warren and Adair counties.

A workgroup of Republican state lawmakers recently called for an overhaul of department leadership, an independent investigation of facilities and more transparency.

Rep. Jason Nemes, a Republican from Louisville and co-chair of the workgroup, said the state needs to work with an outside trustee to investigate the system and “change the culture.”

“Staffing is a major problem, culture is a major problem, leadership is the principal problem. people of Kentucky have lost confidence in the folks that are running the Department of Juvenile Justice,” he said.

Republican Sen. Whitney Westerfield, of Crofton, sponsored a 2014 law that brought significant reforms to the juvenile justice system. He said Beshear’s measures are a step forward, but they don’t get to the root of the problem.

“To do all that without also responding to the trauma that you're creating, and that you've created by letting these facilities, I mean, think about the child that's in the facility that had nothing to do with any of these riots,” he said.

Westerfield said the state needs to apply raises across the entire Juvenile Justice Department, not just workers in detention centers. He also said the state needs to partner with community mental health centers and other providers to provide services for incarcerated youth and staff members.

Democratic Representative Nima Kulkarni of Louisville called Beshear’s actions “a knee jerk reaction” with “vague promises,” and that kids are not being centered in the reform process.

“These are kids at the end of the day. What brought them to this situation? Why are they in this position? They’re not getting the support that they need and have probably endured neglect, abuse or years of trauma,” she said.

But both Beshear’s actions and recommendations by legislators don’t include one solution — mental health interventions.

Mental health missing from the conversation around safety

According to the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, most kids entering juvenile detention are poor and more than 70% have mental health disorders that often go unseen and untreated.

The federal government’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency prevention says many detention centers fall short in providing referrals to treatment and appropriately screening, assessing, and treating detained youth with mental health conditions.

Researchers have also found disparities—particularly by race, ethnicity, gender and age—in who is referred for treatment in the juvenile justice system.

When asked about mental health services for detained youth, Beshear said it was a challenge to provide any counseling before youth go to trial.

“A lot of these juveniles are represented by counsel who don’t want them talking to a counselor about the incident that landed them in a DJJ detention, because their trial is still coming up,” he said.

Beshear said the state’s Employee Assistance Program provides mental health counseling for workers, though he acknowledged the stigma around asking for help persists.

Longtime children’s rights attorney Rebecca DiLoreto said the department is aware many incarcerated youth have serious mental health disorders and that workers are frustrated with the lack of resources and tools available to them.

“They know exactly what to do and how to take a trauma-informed lens on this crisis. Instead the state officials paint them as a whole different class of children, that they're just violent by nature and that’s a myth,” she said.

She also said Beshear’s argument that a child cannot receive counseling pre-trial isn’t correct.

“Even the kids that are in there for more serious offenses, their lawyers want them to receive treatment. We don’t want to isolate a kid from that treatment so they can be completely mentally ill by the time we finally get their case done,” she said.

DiLoreto said a good start would be diverting youth with mental health conditions into evidence-based mental health treatment.

And children with non-violent offenses could be released with conditions like ankle monitors, supervision or counseling.

“Release them safely with conditions of ankle monitors, with supervision, get more counseling, get family intervention. Let us find other ways to get the kid’s attention, if they were to do that, they won’t need to build more jails,” she said.

Support for this story was provided in part by theJewish Heritage Fund.

News Youth Reporting
Divya is LPM's Race & Equity Reporter. Email Divya at dkarthikeyan@lpm.org.

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