When individuals bring children into their homes, they take on the responsibility of giving them what they need to thrive: a stable, safe environment, learning opportunities, mental and physical health care.
When the state takes a child into custody, it has the same responsibilities.
Kentucky has failed the children at the seven detention centers operated by the Department of Juvenile Justice.
An inspection of the centers found the children receive almost no mental health care although many have “significant mental health needs;” and don’t get appropriate educational opportunities although many have learning disabilities. It also found that staff didn’t receive enough training and that there is high staff turnover and staff shortages.
Worse, children are still punished by confinement in small, concrete isolation cells where they sit alone and, too often, are inadequately monitored. Gynnya McMillen, 16, died in one of those cells two years ago. Because the cell was not monitored, she received no medical treatment and her death was not discovered for 10 hours.
“The effects of that confinement are devastating to the child,” said Justice and Public Safety Secretary John Tilley, who took on his job shortly before Gynnya’s death. While most children don’t die in the confinement cells, the isolation can “exacerbate mental illness and post-traumatic stress responses suffered by many youth in the juvenile justice system,” according to Stop Solitary for Kids, a campaign seeking to end the practice.
To his credit, Tilley has been aggressive, smart and open about the challenge. He fired several people at the center where Gynnya died, which has since closed, as well as the then-commissioner of juvenile justice. He hired a new commissioner, Carey Cockerell, who is charged with reforming the centers.
He also hired the independent Center for Children’s Law and Policy of Washington, D.C. to examine the system and report back. The report will be a benchmark to measure progress — or lack of it — when the group re-examines the system in a year.
Here are some indicators that will tell us if his reforms are taking hold:
▪ Fewer children relegated to solitary confinement and those who are will be carefully monitored. As Tilley said, it should be used sparingly, for short periods of time and with “well-being checks” every 15 minutes.
▪ A psychologist with a specialty in adolescent behavior will be on staff, full time, at each of the centers. That will place a professional on site to work with staff to find appropriate responses to behavioral problems, reducing the need for confinement and improving the safety of residents and staff. There is state money for these positions.
▪ Lower staff turnover. In 2016 the Department of Juvenile Justice lost more employees than it hired, 180 to 151. Last spring, Gov. Matt Bevin approved a 20 percent pay hike for juvenile justice workers, to improve retention. A more stable workforce should reduce shortages, improve professionalism and care.