The story of the Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice is a cycle of scandals and lawsuits.
The Kentucky General Assembly created the department in 1996. It was part of a settlement with the U.S. Justice Department after the existing hodgepodge of juvenile lockups, overseen by the Cabinet for Human Resources, was discovered to be so bad that it violated the kids’ civil rights.
Kentucky youths in detention were abused by staff, neglected in isolation and denied education and medical care, the Justice Department concluded after an investigation.
“We must not give up on our children,” Attorney General Janet Reno said at the time of the 1995 settlement. “We must make sure that youngsters entering these centers come out willing to give back to society, rather than eager to get back at it.”
Kentucky also has tried to reduce the number of juveniles it locks up in the first place.
In 2014, the General Assembly passed Senate Bill 200, a juvenile justice reform package that created a stronger diversion process for low-level offenders. Among other things, SB 200 aimed to keep more youths in their own homes as their cases were processed. Studies suggest that Kentucky has been able to eliminate scores of detention facility beds as a result.
But even with new systems in place, problems keep resurfacing.
▪ In 2012, a federal judge ruled against the department’s “body identification process,” where juveniles were stripped naked for examination upon entering one of its facilities. The body ID process was challenged by half-siblings — a 14-year-old girl and a 15-year-old boy — who were admitted to the Breathitt Regional Juvenile Detention Center in Jackson on charges of alcoholic intoxication. The charges later were dismissed.
▪ In 2016, 16-year-old Gynnya McMillen died from a heart condition while being ignored in isolation at the Lincoln Village Regional Juvenile Detention Center in Hardin County. Her death went undiscovered for more than 10 hours. An investigation showed that detention center staff falsified logs to make it appear they were checking on the girl’s safety throughout the night. A lawsuit against the department over Gynnya’s death is pending.
▪ In 2017, the Center for Children’s Law and Policy of Washington, D.C., issued a sharply critical report about the department that cited a near-total absence of mental health care in its residential facilities; chronic staff shortages and inadequate employee training; a lack of special education for youths who have learning disabilities; and too few opportunities for residents to file grievances that could reveal abuses.
▪ Last December, Gov. Andy Beshear’s administration placed Juvenile Justice Commissioner LaShana Harris on leave and then informed her in March that she was being fired for poor job performance. Specifically, state officials said, Harris “created a toxic environment.” But in an awkward standoff, Harris managed to hang onto her $115,000-a-year post for two more months, until May, when she was allowed to resign.
The department has rotated through five different commissioners in the past five years, which worries observers who say the agency has suffered for lack of steady, experienced management.
“Certainly some of the same problems exist that did before the creation of the Department of Juvenile Justice, in part because of funding and in part because of leadership,” said Rebecca Ballard DiLoreto, a longtime Kentucky children’s advocacy attorney who helped bring the lawsuit that started the department 25 years ago.
Over the years, the department has failed to properly train its employees and promptly fire those who mistreat youths, DiLoreto said.
“It’s a matter of the DJJ putting its resources into addressing those personnel issues, given their level of seriousness, and never brushing off even one incident,” said DiLoreto, who is now executive director of the Lexington-based Institute for Compassion in Justice.
Many youths in the department’s facilities already have experienced abuse at home, DiLoreto said. Their behaviors can only be hardened by suffering more violence while in detention, she said.
“And what we need to understand about youth in Department of Juvenile Justice custody is that we have kids who skip school, we have kids who take cars and then we have kids who have committed serious violent offenses. So we have that range of youths,” she said.
“In a very pragmatic way, if you mistreat a person like that, what are you doing in shaping them?” she asked.