'Stomach-turning’ abuse reported at Ky. juvenile facility months before riot

Former employees claim meal trays and prescription meds were withheld, as well as reports of physical abuse by staff

By John Cheves
Lexington Herald-Leader

COLUMBIA, Ky. — In the months leading up to the riot and sexual assault of a teenage girl at the Adair Regional Juvenile Detention Center last November, employees warned that youths were being mistreated in various ways, often isolated in cells not as punishment but because that made it easier for the thinly stretched staff to keep control.

A grim picture emerges of life inside the facility run by the Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice in Adair County based on interviews with four former employees and internal documents obtained by the Herald-Leader.

“I have witnessed abuse and neglect on a stomach-turning scale,” nurse Joanne Alvarado wrote in her Aug. 1 letter resigning from the facility.

“The treatment of the youths is absolutely terrible,” wrote another nurse, Nina Burton, in her Oct. 6 resignation letter. “They are confined to their room 24 hours a day. They do not even get a shower or recreation daily. They are even served meals in their cells — mind you, the same cells that they defecate and urinate in. It’s absolutely a disgrace.”

The facility’s superintendent, Tonya Burton, vented her own frustration about leaving youths locked in isolation for extended periods, including girls who were pregnant or mentally ill. But Burton said she saw no alternative given a constant shortage of the employees who would be necessary to monitor youths gathering in common areas.

“I am doing the best I can right now,” Tonya Burton wrote in an Oct. 4 text to the medical staff in response to protests over the isolation of youths. “I am working insane hours. I am napping a few hours here and there and working all shifts. I want these kids moving.”

Nobody should have been surprised when violence exploded at the Adair facility on Nov. 11, requiring Kentucky State Police to enter and restore order, according to former medical and security employees.

Police said in a statement that the youths “assaulted a staff member, confiscated the staff member’s keys and released other juveniles from their cells.” During the chaos, a teen girl was sexually assaulted, police said.

The former employees said the violent outburst, while horrible, was sadly predictable.

“When you’re in a cell for three or four days at a time, are you going to want to go back in once you finally get out? No, you are not,” said David Hare, a youth worker supervisor at the Adair facility until he retired in November, in an interview with the Herald-Leader.

“It’s mental and psychological abuse that goes on there,” Hare said. “Somebody needs to go in there and take over.”

Faced with criticism about the juvenile detention centers, Gov. Andy Beshear has announced a number of changes in recent weeks. Among them, Beshear ordered that youths be housed separately by gender and severity of offense. He also approved higher starting salaries for youth workers, taking them to $50,000 a year, as well as pepper spray and tasers as “defensive equipment” for youth workers to use if necessary inside the facilities.

However, Hare and the other former DJJ employees who spoke to the newspaper said they each separately left the Adair facility last fall in disgust because they were so unhappy with how youths are treated there.

“I said, ‘It’s not a matter of if but when this ends badly.’ And that’s what happened,” Alvarado said.

“Anyone could have seen that coming,” Alvarado said. “The way we treated those kids? Nobody in charge cared. And if you messed up there, I swear, you got a promotion.”

Several former employees who spoke to the Herald-Leader said they also have been interviewed by the FBI in recent months about conditions inside the Adair facility. A spokesman for the FBI office in Louisville declined to comment.

A longtime Kentucky children’s right’s attorney, Rebecca Ballard DiLoreto, said she recently represented a client held at the Adair facility. She vouched for the former employees’ accounts of youths stuck in cells indefinitely.

“There are horrible conditions in that facility,” DiLoreto said. “There was no freedom to move around. They just keep them locked down. There was no mental health services provided to him — and my client had severe mental illness. No showers, no recreation, horrible food.”

“If DJJ had been transparent about the conditions inside this place before the riot happened last November, then maybe they could have gotten more funds at the time to improve things,” DiLoreto said. “Maybe they could have even refused to take more kids until they got the help they needed. They could have handled this a lot better.”

‘They broke her’

According to various accounts from the former employees, youths’ meal trays were withheld as punishment if a single youth misbehaved; prescription medicine was withheld despite doctors’ orders; youths were hit in the face and head during restraints by staff; and incident reports were altered to conceal incriminating facts.

Last June, a grand jury indicted a woman who worked at the facility, Brooke Belt, on felony charges related to her allegedly bringing in drugs to distribute to one or more youths, according to court records. At least one youth tested positive for drugs in relation to that case. Belt’s trial is scheduled in Adair Circuit Court for Feb. 23.

But of all the deficiencies, the former employees told the Herald-Leader they were particularly shocked by the deteriorating mental health of a teenage girl — a ward of the state — who was locked in isolation last summer with little official effort made to assist her.

The girl ended up naked, covered in her own filth and nearly catatonic, according to the employees and documents obtained by the Herald-Leader from some of the employees and through the Kentucky Open Records Act.

“They broke her. It was Adair County that broke her,” said Beth Johnson, a former nurse at the Adair facility. “That whole wing smelled so bad, nobody could go down that wing.”

“We tried to get her help, but the excuse was always, ‘We can’t do anything with her because she’s naked.’ Well, she’s naked because she’s going through a psychotic break,” said Nina Burton. “She needs to be in a hospital or some sort of psychiatric facility, not a jail.”

A youth worker supervisor was put on investigative leave and later disciplined for inappropriate or excessive force after he forced the girl’s hands back through the flap of her cell door on July 1, according to state records. Kentucky State Police referred an allegation of official misconduct to prosecutors, where it is pending, police say.

The girl was reaching out the door flap and saying, “Please help me, please help me” when her arms were painfully twisted and forced back into her cell, witnesses said. Security staff then angrily ordered the flap kept shut, they said.

The girl was manic that day, hearing voices inside her head, witnesses said.

“If this child was with parents and found in this condition, she would be removed from their custody and the parents would be jailed!!!! This is unethical and at this point criminal!!!! Short staffing does not excuse abuse,” nurse practitioner Angela Jessie wrote in an Aug. 1 email to six of her medical staff colleagues at DJJ.

“I will be filing a grievance tomorrow in hopes that the commissioner and/or executive staff will intervene,” DJJ nurse administrator Deborah Curry replied to the same group of people in her own email.

“This should not be tolerated in any DJJ facility,” Curry wrote. “It’s the worst I have ever experienced and we have all experienced it some time or another. And they’re basically bullying this youth.”

“I will be glad when someone watches these videos, especially before they come up missing. They’re supposed to be archived but I was told they probably won’t archive these,” Curry wrote.

Frankfort officials knew

The former employees said the Department of Juvenile Justice did not acknowledge their concerns.

“We screamed at the top of our lungs, the whole time we were there, that things were going wrong,” said former nurse Beth Johnson. “But all the way to the top, you hear the supervisors say, ‘Well, I didn’t hear it this way, that’s not what was told to me.’”

In fact, the problems at the Adair facility were no secret to state officials in Frankfort.

As the Herald-Leader previously has reported, like other DJJ facility directors, superintendent Tonya Burton sent monthly reports to DJJ Commissioner Vicki Reed throughout 2022 to update her on lack of staffing, security lapses and poor morale among youths and employees.

The Adair facility — both a detention center and a development center, meant to hold youths before and after a conviction — had an average daily population of 35 youths last summer with at least a dozen job vacancies among its youth workers, according to the reports.

Sometimes only three staff were on the floor to watch the youths when there should have been twice that number, employees said.

In its monthly reports, the Adair facility confirmed that it commonly placed youths on “lockdown” due to inadequate staffing, although it tried to put items such as DVD players in their cells to help them occupy their time.

Regarding the girl locked alone in a cell with failing mental health, Tonya Burton told Reed in July’s report: “She stopped taking a shower, cleaning her room and wearing clothes. She stripped down naked and refused to shower or clean her room. This made the room a mess and have an odor.”

The disturbed girl’s plight “took a toll on staff,” the superintendent told the commissioner. “It has been a tough month for us in dealing with our residential female.”

Bosses: Things will improve

In a brief interview on Thursday with the Herald-Leader, Reed and her superior, Justice and Public Safety Secretary Kerry Harvey, said they could not discuss specific issues raised by the former employees because they did not want to violate the privacy rights of any youths.

But they acknowledged problems inside the Adair facility, which they blamed on inadequate staffing.

“I wish we had enough staff that we didn’t have the kids confined to their cells for one second longer than was absolutely necessary,” said Reed, whom Beshear appointed in 2021 after he fired her predecessor.

Reed would not say how much time, if any, youths spent last year in a classroom or recreation areas at Adair.

“I’m super-big on programming,” she said. “But when you’re so short-staffed that you have to call in the state police to help with moving kids through the facility, you know, you’re just basically left with no choice. You can’t have the kids coming out of their cells and assaulting other youth and staff.”

Reed said she hopes the reforms that Beshear has started — including big pay raises for youth workers, stronger security measures and separate housing for more serious offenders — will help DJJ to restore order. At that point, more normal activities can resume, she said.

“As staffing improves, I think we’ll see a tremendous improvement on that. The second we can do a better job with that, I’ll be very happy,” she said.

Harvey, the justice secretary, said some specific reforms are underway in Adair County.

In December, the Kentucky State Police started to provide trained personnel to help move youths around the Adair facility “so that they can be out of their cells,” he said.

Also, Harvey said, the state Department of Corrections is now training DJJ staff at Adair facility to improve its security procedures, and it has helped with searches inside the facility to find contraband.

‘What are we doing?’

Hare, the youth worker supervisor, said the Adair facility ran more smoothly when he started there a decade ago and it was better staffed.

About four years ago, Hare said, staffing began to dry up throughout DJJ. There no longer were enough employees to cover all the shifts. In 2021, the state responded by rushing newly hired youth workers directly into the detention facilities, bypassing the training academy they previously had attended to learn the basics of their jobs.

An under-staffed detention facility is no place for a rookie to figure out how to control a tense situation, Hare said.

“So it wasn’t just that we didn’t have enough staff,” Hare said. “But toward the end, the people we were getting didn’t know what they were doing. They hadn’t gone through any training.”

“The last night I worked — and this is when I decided that I was through — I was working with someone who just didn’t know what to do, whether she was in control or out on the floor. She was going to be dangerous in either circumstance. That wasn’t her fault, they just didn’t train her,” he said.

It didn’t take much for things to get out of hand, Hare said.

“They had some (youths) in there that was mentally the mind of a 6 year old,” he said.

“The staff say, ‘We don’t have time to let them out now. We’re just doing checks, that’s all the staff we have to do now, we’re just doing checks.’ So the kids get frustrated with the staff. They start beating on the doors. Then, when they finally do get to come out to take a shower, they don’t want to go back in,” he said.

Alvarado, one of the nurses, said the COVID-19 pandemic prompted the facility to isolate youths in their cells and avoid large gatherings in common areas. But even after the pandemic receded, the youths were ordered to stay in their cells, she said.

“They realized, ‘Hey, this is easier,’” Alvarado said. “Of course, you’re going to have problems when you open the door.”

“They don’t go to dining hall anymore like they used to,” Alvarado said. “They used to eat in the cafeteria area. They don’t do that at all. All their trays for breakfast, lunch and dinner are brought down to them.”

“You gotta figure, what are we doing? You’re not going to reform anyone by treating like this, month after month,” Alvarado said.

“We are causing long-term mental health issues in all of these kids who are locked up,” Nina Burton said.

“This isn’t something they’re going to get over as soon as they finally get out,” Nina Burton said. “This is going to cause long-term trauma. This is going to cause problems for all of us down the road.”

Last October, medical staff at the facility protested the continued isolation of a pregnant girl in her cell, where she was crying and asking to be allowed free time in a larger room. Dr. James Van Buren, DJJ’s medical director, cautioned the superintendent in an email that an expectant mother needs regular time outside of a cell.

“I understand she needs to be out of the cell, but I don’t know what I am supposed to do when I barely have staffing to do checks,” Tonya Burton replied to Van Buren.

The superintendent said she was making calls to get the girl released from detention. But there was nothing else she could do, she said. On this day, she said, she was personally filling in for security staff on the floor as well as the facility’s treatment director and counselor, so there was nobody available to “sit with” the pregnant girl.

“I hate the circumstances that we have with staff right now, but I can’t move her,” Tonya Burton wrote.

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