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Two Private Kentucky Youth Facilities Closed for Abuse

It took only six weeks for the Juvenile Justice Department (JJD) to close two Kentucky Youth Academy (KYA) facilities. On Sept. 14th, 2001 the Kentucky Division of Protection and Advocacy (DPA) filed suit in federal court charging the Central KYA in Willisburg with abuse and neglect. Seven days later, on Sept. 21, the JJD closed the facility, removed 40 youths, and cut its $4.5 million contract in half. On Nov. 5, a local newspaper reported that academy CEO Rocky Hall was paying himself over $500,000 a year. On Nov. 6, Hall resigned; and on Nov. 7 the JJD cancelled the contract completely, removed 48 more boys, and closed the KYA facility in Pikesville as well.

Hall founded the original KYA in Pikesville in 1997 as a non profit company. He opened the Willisburg center in 1999. Trouble was not long in coming. Reports of abuse at both centers led to investigations by the DPA, the JJD, and the Cabinet for Families with Children (CFC).

Investigations began in January 2001. Findings were serious enough that the CFC withdrew twelve boys that had been admitted to the academies under its authority.

Youths at the KYA centers were not threats to the public. Most had committed minor, nonviolent offenses like truancy or running away from home. CFC spokesman Michael Jennings said, "We had concerns with the facilities," but refused to give details because such findings are, by law, confidential.

The suit came after CEO Rocky Hall refused to allow DPA investigators into the facility for an unannounced visit. Established under federal law, the DPA is empowered to protect the rights of the disabled and residents of state and private institutions. The lawsuit cites a long list of mistreatment and ethical improprieties including denial of proper medical care, improper and excessive restraint procedures, harassment, coercion, and outright deception. According to the suit, youths at the academy are "at great risk of abuse and neglect." JJD investigators cited numerous problems, including inadequate psychological and psychiatric services, staff shortages, and inadequately trained staff. JJD commissioner Dr. Ralph Kelly said that Hall was instructed to correct the problems but never did.


Earlier in the year, officials from the JJD had investigated the facilities and found that staff had been using an illegal form of punishment called "grouping." During a grouping session, a youth is singled out for punishment and surrounded by other youths who shout and spit on him. According to the suit brought by the DPA, residents would be so close to a victim "that they spit in his face then ordered him not to wipe it off." They went on to say that one abused boy "expressed great fear of reprisal if he reported the abuse."

Grouping was directly linked to two deaths in Kentucky state-run facilities in 1972 and 1983. Because of its potential for violence, grouping has been repeatedly prohibited by the state. Invesigators from the JJD determined that grouping had been used at both facilities but had since been discontinued. On April 10, 2001, they announced that the facilities had been "thoroughly investigated" and that they found "no major cause for concern," although they did recommend that an ombudsman be assigned for further monitoring.

However, reports from former employees and evidence obtained by the Louisville Courier-Journal showed that the abuse was ongoing. At least three employees alleged that the youth center in Willisburg forced the boys to perform hazardous work with no safety equipment or protection.

Youths from the Willisburg facility were used to help in the restoration of an old school building located on the grounds. The project involved various forms of demolition, construction, and renovation. Youths were required to work without hardhats, gloves, or other protective equipment. Many of the boys sustained cuts, scrapes, and foot injuries from stepping on nails. One boy received a head injury when a falling hammer accidentally hit him. Dust in the air was so bad at one point that health care worker Terri Justice went to a discount store and bought masks for the boys. "Dr. Miller got mad at me," she said. He said "these boys don't need these."

Dr. Dean Miller is assistant director of the academies as well as chief operating officer and pastor. According to staff worker Edna Seabrooks, it was also Miller who ordered the boys to clean out a septic tank lagoon filled with raw sewage. "Dr. Miller told them to clean it out," she said. "They had no protection; they were standing in the lagoon, pulling stuff out with their bare hands."

One boy was forced to walk behind a group of boys for hours while carrying two concrete blocks. Others were forced to sit in isolation for hoursand sometimes dayson end. However, these are not the most serious of what the suit calls "coercive practices."

Anthony Payne and Terri Justice recount an incident in which a staff member threw a young boy into a window. "I saw him pick the kid up by both arms and slam him into the glass," said Payne. "I was in shock." Justice, who heard the crash, arrived on the scene to find the floor littered with broken glass and said co-workers described how the boy had been thrown into a window by another employee. Payne, who eventually quit out of frustration over the way the facility was run, said, "It was terrible. They got into control, control, control, control. Treatment was lost."

Academy officials deny the abuse. "In no manner does the Kentucky Youth Academy use corporal punishment or work as a disciplinary measure for negative behavior," they said.

Employees tell a different story. Seabrooks and Justice described a routine called "bedrest" in which youths would be required to strip their beds and remake them for hours on end. Payne said that at times staff would purposely "trash the rooms" then force the boys to clean up the mess. All three insist that the grouping procedure was used continuously before, during and after the JJD investigation. They also said that grouping was not restricted to just youth-on-youth confrontations. Often boys would be slammed to the floor, spit on, and verbally abused by staff. They accused the JJD of not looking closely enough for infractions. "If anyone would have asked me anything, I would have told them.... But they never asked," said Seabrooks.

It is no surprise to Seabrooks that the JJD didn't identify the most serious problems earlier. She said that the investigators always warned Hall that they were coming. She personally recalls taking one call from the JJD and said that after the caller spoke with Hall, he immediately announced, "We've got investigators coming tomorrow" and instructed her to alert the rest of the staff.

Payne tells a similar story. He says that Miller frequently warned staff of impending investigations. "We've got visitors coming, don't be too aggressive with them," he would say. However, "When no one was around, they would scream and holler at the boys," Payne said.

Moreover, according to Seabrooks and Justice, physical restraints were a common, and often unnecessary, practice. Policy requires that a youth be restrained only when he poses a physical threat to
himself or others. However, the former workers say that the boys were often violently thrown into walls and onto the floor for minor offenses. Boys who had trouble adjusting to the facility's regimen were often subjected to ridicule and physical abuse.

Justice herself came under fire when she stood up for an overweight boy who was being verbally abused by staff. When the boy couldn't keep up with the others during an exercise session "they made fun of him," she said. But, when she complained she was told by a supervisor "to mind [her] own business "

Payne said that restraints were often a source of amusement for the staff. Workers poked, screamed, and spit on youths to provoke a violent response. Payne described how staff members would single out a boy for mistreatment. It's called "blowing a kid up," he said. Often a staff member would walk the halls saying "a storm is about to come" as a way of intimidating youths into behaving. In February Payne was approached by staff members who were preparing to "blow up" a certain youth. "Don't you want a piece of this?" they asked him. Payne refused to participate.

He said that when he saw the boy the next day he was shocked. "He looked like he was in a boxing match. His skin was peeled off, his lip was swollen. He wouldn't look at any staff. He just stood there, quiet."

Seabrooks was present during the incident. Alerted by reports of a youth being restrained, she and other staff members responded. She arrived to find a boy face down on the floor, with about half a dozen workers on top of him. Seabrooks said that the restraint method being used was unprofessional and unsafe. Another worker who was watching shouted at the staff restraining the boy to stop. "He was saying, `Put something under his head, get off him,'" Seabrooks said. The youth, whose identity was withheld because of his age, ended up with a bloody nose and his face badly scarred and swollen. He was so mutilated "you could hardly recognize him," she said.

After the incident Seabrooks helped the boy fill out a complaint but was short-stopped by Hall, who said that he wanted to read it before she submitted a copy to the JJD. The next day Seabrooks was told that the boy had
been transferred to the Pikesville Center, 200 miles away. Hall said that the boy had spoken to pastor Miller the night before and agreed to withdraw the complaint. He also produced a signed document to that effect. However, the suit by the DPA alleged that the boy was "forced to tear up the complaint."

The boy's family was not notified of the transfer until his father showed up for a visit. Even then no one told him about his son's injuries. "I was really disappointed," his father said. "They moved him without him having a chance to tell anyone." For weeks the boy's father and grandmother were not allowed to see him. They were told that the boy was being denied visitation privileges for breaking the rules. When the family eventually spoke with him over the phone the boy said "his face was messed up and he had a bloody nose." His grandmother said, "We didn't know anything about [the incident]." When they finally spoke in person, the boy described being beaten, knocked to the ground, and having his face pounded into the floor. His grandmother said that weeks later you could still see the scars.

Although it occurred simultaneously with the investigation, the JJD had no record of the complaint. Seabrooks said that she told a visiting JJD investigator but nothing was ever done. Well, almost nothing. Seabrooks was terminated in June 2000; her supervisors said she wasn't working out. Justice quit her job in July. There was never any trace of the complaint.

Naturally, academy officials deny all of the allegations. An academy spokesman assured JJD officials that, "In no manner does the Kentucky Youth Academy use corporal punishment or work as a disciplinary measure for negative behavior." Oliver H. Barber, attorney for Rocky Hall said, "We categorically deny" any mistreatment of the boys at KYA. He claims that the accusations are simply allegations made by disgruntled employees. Rocky Hall had no comment.


Hall may not have fixed the problems at his youth academies, but he did manage to fix his salary at over $500,000 a year. His total earnings for the year 2000 were $538,000, most of which came from the taxpayer-subsidized JJD contract. Kelly called the sum outrageous and excessive for a person running a private, non-profit organization.

Roughly 10 workers lost their jobs when the two centers closed. Many of those workers made as little as $6.00 per hour, a scenario that State Senator Ray Jones (D-Pikeville) finds upsetting. "There's some injustice here,"
he said. At $6.00 per hour, a family of three is still well below the federal poverty level.

Sen. Jones asked Kelly to reopen the academies. Kelly expressed regret, saying, "It's not a decision we made lightly. We don't like to disrupt kids; we don't like to put people out of work." Yet it is unlikely that either center will be reopened.

State Rep. W. Keith Hall (D-Pike County) acknowledges the dilemma. On one hand he also wants to see the center reopened. However, state agencies are under orders from Gov. Paul Patton to cut their budgets by 2 percent. "They've got to make cuts," he said. "If you don't have it, you don't spend it."

Hall also rejected a request by academy board chairman and pastor Rob Hale to allow the Pikesville center to remain open under new management. Kelly said the gesture was "too little, too late."

"Bravo to Dr. Kelly," said David Richart, a teacher at Spalding University. "I'm glad the state sent a message that there are limits to excessive compensation." Richart, who is an instructor on how to manage non-profit organizations, agrees that Hall's pay was excessive.

Freedom of Religion

Aside from the physical abuse and the salary scandal, the Kentucky Youth Academy also had some pressing constitutional issues. During their investigation, JJD officials noted that "a Christian philosophy is pervasive in all aspects of the program [and] a Christian orientation was prevalent among the staff." Asst. Director Dean Miller and board chairman Bob Hale also hold the title of pastor. In the memo published on Jan. 22, 2001, they noted that even the academic classes used a "Christian-based curriculum." Youths said that they recited "The Lord's Prayer" daily and academy brochures advertised weekly religious services. They also advertised an annual "Day of Praise" in which youths participate in "songs, praise, laughter, and ministry."

Officials for the academy insist that all services are voluntary, but Seabrooks and Justice recount how Miller forced an Asian American who practiced Buddhism, and another boy who claimed to be an atheist, to participate in Christian services. "Dr. Miller ordered him to bow his head and pray aloud with the others," Seabrooks said of the second boy. When questioned about the incidents, both Hall and Miller declined to comment.

David Friedman, general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, points out the obvious First Amendment violation. "The government can't fund a religious entity," he said. Neither can they "endorse a particular religious view." The boys told JJD investigators that religious activities were voluntary, but the investigators noted that "participation levels are apparently at 100 percent."

Earlier this year investigators for the DPA were concerned that youths may have been subjected to "forced religious practice" and recommended continued investigation. Kelly said that the JJD was concerned about "several types of allegations other than abuse." Friedman said that it would be nice if the state would "voluntarily" enforce the law.

Grand Jury

On Dec. 28, 2001, a Washington County grand jury completed its investigation and declined to issue criminal charges against anyone connected with the two facilities. However, they did issue a one-page report that criticized JJD Commissioner Ralph Kelly for costing academy employees their jobs and the Courier-Journal for exposing the abuse. The report said that the paper should have presented a more balanced view. "It's fairly obvious they didn't care for your articles, nor did they feel the commissioner handled it very well," Barry Bertram told a Courier-Journal reporter. Bertram is the commonwealth attorney for Washington County. He said some of the jurors had previously visited the center and were impressed with the well-groomed, well-mannered boys. They were also sympathetic to residents who were upset about losing their jobs.

One of those residents terminated in the KYA debacle is Willisburg mayor Mark Terrell. Terrell had been questioned by reporters once before about allegations of abuse at the center. His comments at the time were, "I am still employed there. I don't want to get into it." After the grand jury investigation Terrell declined comment completely. No mention is made as to whether he was questioned during the investigation.

Oddly, while the grand jury interviewed 16 former employees, it did not interview the JJD monitor of both facilities. Kelly was also at a loss to explain the snub. "The department's investigation of the activities at Central Kentucky Youth Academy was conducted by an experienced and seasoned investigator as well as persons experienced in interviewing delinquent youth," he said.

Neither did the grand jury interview the boy who was injured by Willisburg staff. "I don't know why they didn't want to talk to him or look at him," said the boy's grandmother. She said that months later the boy still carries scars on his face from being beaten. The boy himself said, "I would have told them what happened."

Bertram said that he didn't prosecute the case personally and didn't know why the boy wasn't called. He said those decisions are usually left up to the prosecuting attorney and the grand jury. Debra Miller, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, is also surprised that the boy wasn't called. "It would seem if you were doing a full-fledged investigation you would want to talk to as many affected parties as you can," she said. The boy's father said that an account of the incident was given to the Cabinet for Families and Children but that they never got back to him.

Oliver H. Barber Jr., attorney for Rocky Hall, was elated at the grand jury's decision. "We're very gratified that our client was exonerated by the grand jury as we predicted," he said.

Lawyers for the Department of Public Advocacy insist that the youths lacked the legal protection provided to youths in state-run centers. A 1995 federal consent decree provides youths in state facilities access to outside investigators. According to Seabrooks, the boys in Kentucky Youth Academy had "no rights."

Source: The Courier-Journal

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