Girl’s death underscores need for more juvenile-justice reforms

Gynnya McMillen
Gynnya McMillen

A small but powerful group of advocates recently convened on the steps of the state Capitol to ensure the tragic death of Gynnya McMillen was not in vain. The 16-year-old Shelby Countian died in her cell in the Lincoln Village Detention Center on Jan. 11, a day after she was arrested and detained for her role in a domestic incident.

The group called upon Gov. Matt Bevin to step up reform efforts in Kentucky’s juvenile-justice system, including closing the Lincoln Village Juvenile Detention Center, firing the center’s superintendent, Michelle Brady, and enlisting the help of an outside organization to investigate.

Regardless of the irregular heartbeat given as a cause of death, or anticipated results from an ongoing investigation into restraints or neglect by facility staff members, the case continues to raise critical and timely issues regarding our treatment of girls in the juvenile justice system.

We are far too complacent in accepting the realities of avoidable arrests, locking up youth who pose no community risk and failing to connect the dots in cases where better outcomes could be achieved with a few more questions and a bit more work to look for better alternatives.

The juvenile justice system has seen an increasing number of girls in the last decade. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention notes that girls and young women make up nearly 30 percent of youth arrested, and their detainment and court cases have steadily increased over the last two decades.

In 2014, of the 7,060 youth detained in Kentucky, 1,610 of them — nearly 1 in 5 — were females. Too often these are girls of color and girls living in poverty, and victims of violence, including physical and sexual abuse. They are typically nonviolent and do not pose a risk to the community.

Our state system has lacked meaningful focus on the unique needs of girls and how they come into the system. For Gynnya’s death to bring meaningful change, we need to ask far more relevant questions about how our systems intervene in the lives of children like her.

The juvenile justice system has seen an increasing number of girls in the last decade. Researchers for the Annie E. Casey Foundation have found systemic bias toward girls and families in chaos who use the juvenile courts as a way of removing girls from home, or as a way to obtain services. The default position for protecting troubled and traumatized children, particularly girls, is to lock them in secure detention.

Decision-making about girls can be paternalistic and justify detention as a means to obtain services, protect them from sexual victimization or expressions of sexual identity or correct non-compliant or non-cooperative behaviors. Indeed, although perhaps well intended, placement in detention may subject them to further trauma or victimization.

The opportunity and the impetus for changing policy and practice in Kentucky around the needs of girls in the system is now.

We should begin to re-examine policies about how girls are handled by courts, particularly those related to assault and family conflict. Gender specific training for police as well as court personnel, detention staff and key stakeholder groups can help identify bias and lead to best practices in interactions with girls.

Gender-responsive policies should be adopted which are strength based and recognize girls’ specific needs and vulnerabilities. This should include the practices and conditions within Department of Juvenile Justice detention centers as well.

Inter-system collaboration is critical as well to address gender disparities. As Sen. Reggie Thomas, D-Lexington, noted last week, law-enforcement policies based upon the “first to get to the phone” in domestic incidents should be rethought, and other community responses sought in domestic disputes, particularly between children and parents.

Detention alternatives, such as relative placements or shelters, are a viable alternative for many youth who are low risk and could be diverted away from secure lock ups, and a particularly effective one for girls. And coordination between juvenile-justice and child-welfare organizations to achieve the best outcomes for youth without interagency conflict is essential.

Kentucky’s Department of Juvenile Justice began implementation of the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiatives a few years ago, but only in targeted counties.

The initiatives require critical assessment of the purposes of detention. The data-driven process can safely reduce detention admissions, decrease racial disparities, improve conditions and address the needs of special populations.

Expansion of the model should be a priority. Meanwhile, the department can work to examine and improve the conditions within them generally, and their gender-specific response to girls’ needs specifically. External resources which specialize in assessing such conditions should undertake this work so that findings and recommendations are thorough and honest.

A concerted focus on improving our responses to girls in the juvenile system — and keeping them out — is an important area of improvement our system should undertake. We can, and must, learn a lot from Gynnya about how to do better.

Kim Tandy is executive director of the Children’s Law Center, based in Covington.