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New facility, system for detained children with extreme behavioral disorders created in bill advancing in Ky. legislature

Sen. Danny Carroll, a Republican from Benton, is sponsoring a bill to fix what he says are some of the major issues within Kentucky's juvenile justice detention centers.
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Sen. Danny Carroll, a Republican from Benton, is sponsoring a bill to fix what he says are some of the major issues within Kentucky's juvenile justice detention centers.

A bill advancing through the state legislature would create a system and potentially build a new facility for “high acuity” children with extreme levels of aggression or violent behavior.

Kentucky’s Department of Juvenile Justice has no system to address the significant needs of children with behavioral disorders that can include high-levels of aggression and violent behavior, according to bill sponsor Sen. Danny Carroll, a Republican from Benton.

Carroll said the failure to appropriately help these kids is the source of many of DJJ’s woes.

“[The bill] provides a higher level of mental health treatment,” Carroll said. “We all agree that that's imperative at this point, and we can't let things that have been happening in the past continue to occur in this commonwealth.”

Carroll’s bill would create a new system, intertwining the DJJ, Cabinet for Health and Family Services, courts and providers to determine where children with the most severe issues, called “high acuity youth,” should be placed.

In the Wednesday House committee hearing, the bill passed unanimously. The legislation already passed a Senate vote, and will now be sent to the House floor. There’s little time left before the governor’s veto period begins.

In addition to the legislation passing, Kentucky lawmakers would need to allocate funds to construct the facilities in the state budget, which is still under consideration.

The legislation also calls for a DJJ facility specifically designed to provide intensive services to high acuity youth. Carroll said it would require $22 million in this year’s budget. The final version of the budget has not yet dropped, but the Senate’s proposal included just $5 million for the facility.

“If we don't do that now, it's going to be at least four years before we're able to get these kids out of detention facilities,” Carroll said. “That's unacceptable.”

After a riot that led to the sexual assault of a girl and injury of a staff member at the Adair Regional Juvenile Detention Center last year, Beshear responded by requiring incarcerated children to be separated by gender and the severity of their offenses.

Before that, independent consultants found in 2017 that 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 — concerns that still exist today.

Senate Bill 242 also attempts to solve the issue of gender-segregated detention facilities, which would require millions in retrofitting. The legislation instead requires the department to build two facilities for girls, in central and western Kentucky — these new facilities were funded in the Senate version of the budget to the tune of $90 million.

Boys facilities would continue to transition to a regional model where kids are placed closest to home. The facilities would still all need to be separated into non-violent and violent offenders.

Any child who has been charged with a crime and is in state custody would have to undergo a behavioral assessment to see whether they count as a “high acuity youth,” under the bill. The clinician who performed the assessment would prepare an affidavit, including recommendations for where the child should be placed.

If the DJJ and Department for Behavioral Health, Developmental and Intellectual Disabilities agree, then they can begin to form a treatment plan and submit it to the judge. If not, they still have to submit their reasoning to the judge, who would make the final determination.

“It puts all the pressure on the judge to make that decision, who is independent,” Carroll said. “Yet it provides them with an entirely different level of information, in order to make the best possible decision, coming from all the stakeholders.”

The bill also sets up a process where, if a child “commits an act of violence” while in inpatient treatment, the child can still be criminally charged and taken to a different facility, and placed back into detention.

GOP Committee chairwoman Rep. Samara Heavrin from Leitchfield commended the legislation, but urged lawmakers to remember that, no matter how severe their issues, they were talking about children.

“What I don't want us to forget… that even if they're very violent, they're still youth, and so making sure that we don't decide their future for them at 18,” Hearvin said.

State government and politics reporting is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Sylvia is the Capitol reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Richmond, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email her at sgoodman@lpm.org.