Gov. Matt Bevin’s administration on Friday named a retired Texas official who oversaw a controversial 2008 raid on a polygamist sect, seizing more than 400 children without a court order, to run Kentucky’s troubled Department of Juvenile Justice.
Carey D. Cockerell’s “appointment is part of an ongoing revamp to ensure the highest level of performance and accountability” at DJJ, the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet said in a news release. Cockerell will begin Sept. 16.
DJJ ousted several officials, including then-Commissioner Bob Hayter, in February following the death of 16-year-old Gynnya McMillen at one of its detention centers. The coroner ruled that Gynnya died from a rare heart condition. But an investigation determined that multiple DJJ employees failed to perform mandatory bed checks and falsified their logs around the time of her death.
“Juvenile justice is undergoing a top-to-bottom transformation in Kentucky, and Mr. Cockerell brings the knowledge and expertise to shepherd reforms with transparency and accountability,” said Kentucky Justice Secretary John Tilley said in a prepared statement. “We were impressed by his commitment to public safety and his compassion for our youth.”
Cockerell was commissioner of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services from 2005 until he retired in 2008 at the age of 61.
In March 2008, three months before his retirement, Cockerell’s agency seized 468 children during an overnight raid of the Yearning for Zion Ranch, a 1,700-acre complex in West Texas that was home to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The agency later said it had received a tip about physical and spiritual abuse at the ranch. However, the Texas Supreme Court ruled a month later that the agency had erred, improperly removing children from their families.
“On the record before us, removal of the children was not warranted,” the court ruled.
The state’s raid angered religious and civil-liberties groups and led to hearings by Texas lawmakers.
Mike Wynn, spokesman for Kentucky’s Justice Cabinet, said Cockerell would not be available for an interview Friday. The Bevin administration knew about the 2008 raid when it hired Cockerell, Wynn said.
“We’re aware of his background,” Wynn said. “We think that he has an exceptional record. He has a reputation for reform.”
Under Texas law, Cockerell’s agency did not need a court order to seize children from the ranch, Wynn said. The decision was upheld shortly after the raid in a hearing before a district judge. However, the Texas Court of Appeals and Supreme Court soon overruled that judge, finding that the state had “failed to meet its burden of proof” before it broke up hundreds of families, according to court records.
Before he ran the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, Cockerell spent 20 years as director of juvenile services in Tarrant County, Texas, a major metro area, where he managed probation, court and detention services, and treatment and post-adjudication programs.