Unconscionable. Inhumane. We're running out of words for how badly KY treats troubled kids. | Opinion

  • In US
  • 2023-01-24 12:00:00Z
  • By Lexington Herald-Leader

Sadly, we are no longer shocked, just appalled at the litany of horrors that Herald-Leader reporter John Cheves has been exposing for almost two years about Kentucky's juvenile justice system. Abuse, neglect and violence permeate these juvenile jails, compounding the traumas of our most troubled youth.

Cheves' latest installment shows that officials knew of the terrible conditions at the Adair Regional Juvenile Detention Center in the months leading up to a riot and the sexual assault of a teenage girl there 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," Cheves wrote.

The latest story, mostly obtained from outraged former employees, features a mentally ill child at the Adair who wallowed in her own filth in solitary confinement because an overworked and understaffed work force did not know or did not wish to know how to help her.

But others were abused, too. "The treatment of the youths is absolutely terrible," a nurse wrote in her 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."

Also a disgrace is the late response from the administration of Gov. Andy Beshear. In appearances before legislators, Beshear's top juvenile justice officials have appeared to downplay the concerns, and been reluctant to discuss the problem in detail with reporters. That's a lousy strategy, and it has backfired spectacularly in this case.

Late last year, Beshear announced a plan to segregate the youths in the juvenile justice system by gender and severity of alleged offenses, and last week released a plan to increase pay in hopes of recruiting more employees to a sector where sometimes 40 percent of the jobs go unfilled. But that move comes too late in the game, clearly provoked by these stories and the political shots that Republicans have been happy to shoot across the bow.

Beshear's plan includes better defense mechanisms for staff, including pepper spray. But as one juvenile advocate, attorney Rebecca DiLoreto pointed out, the children really need more counseling and better conditions that could ease their way back to normal life.

As much as Beshear and his administration deserve a drubbing over this mess, GOP legislators should pause to ask themselves if they are as excited to help children as they are to score off Beshear in their attempts to make him a one-term governor. Fixes to the juvenile justice system will need the kind of funding that Kentucky will no longer have if the Republican plan to eliminate the income tax goes forward. These deep, systemic problems need serious bipartisan and well-funded solutions, not cheap shots and talking points.

The problems also highlight the immense need for local journalism. Without diligent, persistent reporting, the suffering of these children would have ended where it started - in secret. Secrecy and accountability are the opposite of good government; in the end, they are are also futile. Our children, even the ones with behavioral issues and mental illness, deserve better all the way around.


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