Former employees allege abuse and neglect at state juvenile detention facilities due to understaffing

Lexington, Ky–Four former employees of the Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice recently described “stomach-churning” conditions at the state’s juvenile detention centers in interviews with the Lexington Herald Leader’s John Cheves.

“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.”

Insiders warned of ‘stomach-turning’ abuse in KY juvenile facility in months before riot
John Cheves, Lexington Herald-Leader

In November, there was a riot at the Adair County facility where the interviewees previously worked. Those former workers described the riot as “predictable.” In that incident, a youth attacked a staff member while another youth stole their keys and radio. The two juveniles then attacked a third juvenile. A few days after that, one of the same two inmates made threats against a staff member and tried to take the staff member’s keys but was not successful. The Herald Leader also reported that a teen girl was sexually assaulted there around that time.

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.

David Hare, a youth worker supervisor at the Adair facility until he retired in November, in an interview with the Herald-Leader.

Other abuses discussed by the former employees included:

  • Meal trays being withheld as punishment if a single youth misbehaved
  • Prescription medicine being withheld against doctors’ orders
  • Youths were reportedly hit in the face and head during restraints by staff.
  • Incident reports were altered by staff to cover up incriminating behavior.

Beshear announces pay increase for state Juvenile Justice workers

Kentucky Lantern’s McKenna Horsley reports that Gov. Andy Beshear recently announced an increase in starting pay for staff in youth detention centers and unveiled a proposal to build two new facilities to house juveniles.

Those and other changes outlined by Beshear on Thursday come amid criticism from Republican lawmakers about the administration’s handling of unsafe and sometimes violent conditions in the understaffed state-run facilities, including the riot at the facility in Adair County. 

The governor said the starting salary for youth workers in detention centers would be $50,000 annually.  

In a press release last month, the Governor’s Office said the Department of Juvenile Justice was seeking to fill more than 105 full-time positions across the state’s eight juvenile detention centers. Youth worker hourly pay then started at $21.45 and, with shift hourly premium, employees could earn upwards of $25.71 an hour.