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Lawsuit: Mentally ill teen girl abused in filthy cell at KY juvenile detention center

Lexington Herald-Leader - 1/31/2024

A mentally ill 17-year-old girl spent much of the summer of 2022 locked — sometimes naked — in a filthy isolation cell in one of Kentucky’s controversial juvenile detention centers, where security staff mocked her smell and ignored her cries for help, according to a federal lawsuit filed this week.

Neglected for weeks, the girl grew increasingly confused and paranoid. She reached her hands through a narrow flap in her cell door and called out, “They are going to kill me,” according to the suit.

Lawyers for the girl, now a 19-year-old woman, filed the Jan. 28 suit in U.S. District Court in Bowling Green against seven employees of the Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice. The lead defendant is Tonya Burton, superintendent of the Adair Regional Juvenile Detention Center in Columbia, where the girl was held in 2022.

The woman is suing for punitive and compensatory damages.

“We look forward to letting a jury determine whether depriving a child of medication; locking her in solitary confinement for 27 days, in a room that reeked so badly that it was described as unbearable; and the myriad other acts committed against her, were consistent with her constitutional rights,” said one of her attorneys, Gregory Coulson of Lexington, in a Herald-Leader interview Tuesday evening.

“Particularly because this occurred while medical staff begged to help her and sounded the alarms regarding her treatment,” he added. “This inhumanity toward a child they acknowledge to be mentally ill is inconsistent with who we are as a society.”

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The state’s Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, which oversees the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), denies the allegations contained in the lawsuit and will defend itself accordingly, spokeswoman Morgan Hall said Tuesday.

However, Hall said, because the girl suffered from severe mental illness, the state agrees she should not have been in a juvenile detention center.

But she “was ordered detained by a judge, and DJJ had no choice but to obey that order,” Hall said.

As the Herald-Leader reported last year, the Department of Juvenile Justice sometimes holds youths who have physically acted out because of mental illness; who have been traumatized by abuse and neglect and who have witnessed violence; and who, as wards of the state, have spent their childhoods bouncing between foster homes and private social-service agencies.

“Juveniles who suffer from severe mental health issues should not be placed in a detention facility because of conduct arising from their illness,” Hall said.

“The administration has highlighted this problem many times before legislative committees, and both DJJ and the Cabinet for Health and Family Services issued a request for proposal to provide psychiatric services to juveniles, but neither received a response.”

In the case of the girl in Adair County in 2022 who is now suing, Hall said, the Department of Juvenile Justice repeatedly tried to place her in private treatment facilities inside and outside Kentucky. Those facilities either refused to admit her because of her aggressive behavior or, on two occasions, they briefly admitted her before reversing themselves, again because of her aggressive behavior.

When the girl turned 18, the department filed an involuntary commitment petition with a court, alleging she was mentally ill and posed a danger to herself or others, Hall said.

“DJJ took this action because staff feared for her safety upon release from juvenile detention. The court and the clinicians agreed, and (the girl) received beneficial treatment in a state psychiatric hospital, a facility that could not have provided her care the day before her 18th birthday.”

Lawsuits piling up

The woman’s lawsuit is only the latest of several from the past year to allege mistreatment of youths at the Department of Juvenile Justice, filed by former employees and youths once held inside its detention centers.

Last year, the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy warned that the department too often locks youths alone in their cells for days or weeks for so-called “non-behavior isolation,” even when they didn’t commit any offenses.

Kentucky’s juvenile justice commissioner, Vicki Reed, resigned effective Jan. 1 after a long series of problems at her agency’s facilities, including neglect, excessive force, riots, assaults and escapes. Her immediate superior, Justice and Public Safety Secretary Kerry Harvey, also recently announced his departure.

In this newest suit, the woman’s attorneys said her mental and physical health rapidly declined while she was held alone in darkness for weeks.

The Herald-Leader has chosen to not name the woman at this time because of personal details revealed by the lawsuit.

The woman’s “solitary confinement was not rationally related to a legitimate government objective,” according to the suit. “The filth, lack of showering and failure to provide food was not rationally related to a legitimate government objective.”

During the woman’s time in isolation, her cell was not cleaned, and food she failed to eat was left to rot, according to the suit. On other occasions, if she did not immediately accept food when it was offered to her at the door flap of her cell, the food was taken away from her, according to the suit.

The woman lived in solitary confinement from late June 2022 through late July 2022, followed by a trip to the hospital for medical treatment, according to the suit. When she was returned to the juvenile detention center in August 2022, she went back into solitary confinement..

According to separate court records, in Christian District Court, she more recently has been held at Western State Hospital, a psychiatric facility run by the state of Kentucky in Hopkinsville.

During a trip to the emergency room at nearby Jennie Stuart Medical Center in November 2023, the woman lashed out violently, wrecking the examination room, and biting, kicking and spitting at medical staff and law enforcement. As a result, she was arrested and now faces several criminal charges for assault and terroristic threatening.

A Nov. 17, 2023, letter in her court file from a psychologist requested her return to the psychiatric hospital, warning that she should not continue to be held in the Christian County jail, despite the criminal charges.

The woman “has multiple medical conditions which cannot be well-monitored or treated in the jail setting, all of which drastically affect her mental health,” wrote psychologist Susan Redmond-Vaught.

“Additionally, her mental state is exceedingly fragile, and she has suffered severe mental, physical and sexual trauma in the juvenile corrections system,” she said in the letter. “In the presence of uniforms and a jail setting, she is likely to be dissociative and violent beyond her volitional control and place herself and the jail officers/inmates at extreme risk.”

Court records indicate she was released back to the psychiatric hospital three days later.

Medical staff vs. security staff

The Herald-Leader first reported on the woman’s case a year ago using interviews and state records obtained through the Open Records Act.

Medical staff at the juvenile detention center in Adair County told the Herald-Leader they were horrified by the suffering of a mentally ill girl locked for weeks in isolation.

Nurses said security staff shouted and cursed when they tried to communicate with the girl through a narrow door flap. She ended up naked, covered in her own filth and nearly catatonic, according to interviews and state records.

In her lawsuit, the woman’s attorneys say she desperately stuck her arms out of the door flap for help. Two of the security staff “violently twist(ed) (her) arms and slam(med) the door flap on (her) arms while she screamed in pain and was suffering from underlying mental health trauma,” according to the suit.”

“Once her arms were back in, (one of the guards) screamed, ‘Nobody opens the f—king flap,’ as he kicked the door,” according to the suit.

Nurses wanted to examine the girl’s arms and hands for injuries after that incident, but they were refused, according to the suit.

“There is a breakdown in the proper workings of the detention center, including physical assaults of juveniles, extended solitary confinement, refusal to comply with medical instructions and inhumane treatment of juveniles,” according to the suit. DJJ supervisors “knew of the breakdown and turned a blind eye to it.”

The girl’s treatment emotionally divided the facility’s medical staff from its security staff, according to the lawsuit and the Herald-Leader’s reporting.

Nurses and mental health professionals protested that the girl should be removed from isolation in favor of medical care, while security staff warned the medical staff to stay away from her door and leave her alone, according to the suit.

“Every day that she is in that dark filthy room, she has less chance of returning to us,” nurse administrator Deborah Curry wrote in a July 9, 2022, email to DJJ supervisors, according to the suit.

However, on his Facebook page, one of the security staff mocked the girl’s smell, according to the suit. “bro, until you can walk past door 26, you don’t get to laugh,” the worker wrote, including a laughing emoji

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