Kids Tangled in State Custody

Magazine cover reading "The Best of the Press: Southern Journalism Awards"

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 15 No. 3/4, "The Best of the Press: Southern Journalism Awards." Find more from that issue here.

From August 9 to August 16, 1986, Kentucky Post reporter Michele Day probed the workings of the state's juvenile justice system in a series called "Kids on Trial." With an even hand and sensitive ear, Day focused on the inadequacy of detention and treatment programs, workable family-based approaches, and the children who become wards of society. 


Covington — Kentucky's juvenile justice system is as tangled and troubled as the lives of the children in its care. County juvenile officials are struggling to handle alarming increases in juvenile arrests and reports of abuse and neglect. 

The court system is ineffective and detention facilities are so inadequate the state may lose $600,000 in federal funds next year. 

Community programs for abused and troubled children are lacking and the state is short on beds, treatment facilities, social workers, and professional staff. Federal and state cuts in manpower and services have left the Cabinet for Human Resources overburdened, underfunded, and under fire. 

As a result, some children "go from being victims of their families or communities to being victims of the state," said David Richart, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, a non-profit group that aims at making government accountable on children's issues. 

Abused and neglected children often must wait to get into treatment programs and foster homes. Dangerous and destructive delinquents must wait in line for spots in camps and locked facilities. 

Many get into additional trouble or lost in the judicial tangle, juvenile officials say. 

For example, a 15-year-old Covington boy was picked up for breaking and entering last month while he was awaiting a bed in a juvenile camp. A five-month-old Covington girl suffered two broken ribs, retinal hemorrhages and head injuries while social workers investigated complaints of abuse in the home. 

Social workers in northern Kentucky carry 35 or 40 cases — nearly double the recommended average. The burnout rate among juvenile officials is high, morale low. And kids in treatment facilities don't get adequate supervision or treatment, critics say. 

Three special commissions since 1972 have found abuses in the state's social services programs. A 1985 task force concluded: "The system for protecting children from abuse and neglect is so inadequate that the state fears for the safety of some in its care." 

The state moved yesterday to dismiss an employee charged with sexual abuse of residents at the Northern Kentucky Treatment Center in Kenton County. Charges of child abuse and mismanagement surfaced at the facility for emotionally disturbed children last month in a letter written by unnamed past and present employees. 

The rise in juvenile crime and child abuse is dumping more kids into the system at a time when the state is trying to recover from massive manpower and money setbacks. 

The number of child abuse and neglect reports has doubled in Kentucky in the past five years — climbing from 15,668 in 1980 to 32,898 in 1984. 

Juvenile arrests in the state jumped from 17,536 in 1984 to 17,933 in 1985. In Covington, arrests increased by nearly 30 percent. 

During the same time period, the state's social services department lost $18 million in federal and state money. The cuts eliminated 141 social workers and 152 other employees. 

"The history is, when funding gets into trouble the soft services go," said Anna Grace Day, social services' commissioner. "We're considered a soft service." 

Crisis intervention and overcrowding result in routing — moving kids from program to program. A 1983 commission noted that some of the programs actually create angry young adults. 

"I feel like every place I've been has caused me more problems," said a 17-year-old boy who has been in state institutions since he was 11. 

Overcrowding pushes some children into jails. The state Justice Cabinet estimates 3,250 children spent time in jails last year even though the state discourages putting adults and juveniles together. 

Sixty-six of the 100 county jails in the state do not have a juvenile section separated from the adult section. The state has only five juvenile detention facilities. 

"The jails are old and antiquated," said Coleman Gilbert of the Justice Cabinet. "That doesn't lend itself to separating the juveniles and when it's done, they're usually segregated." 

Segregation increases the likelihood of suicide, according to a study at the University of Illinois. Children in adult jails are eight times as likely to commit suicide as children kept in juvenile facilities. 

Even juvenile detention centers don't eliminate the risk. A 16-year-old boy committed suicide in a juvenile section of the Kenton County Jail last year. 

The state has abandoned treatment methods such as grouping, which led to the death of a resident at Lincoln Village Treatment center in Elizabethtown in 1983. Grouping was an approach in which peers confronted a resident who misbehaved, held him down and shouted at him. 

The social services department also has made progress in implementing a 1983 commission recommendation to decrease the use of institutions in favor of more community-based programs. 

"There's a clear goal and commitment to treatment," Commissioner Day said. 

The juvenile code adopted by the General Assembly in March provides funding for new treatment programs and a network of court workers to relieve judges of minor cases and provide early intervention. State Senator Mike Moloney (D-Lexington) estimates the program will cut the number of juvenile cases before judges in half. 

The 1985 special session of the General Assembly set aside $8.3 million for a family-based services program. The program will provide salaries for more than 200 new employees, emergency funds for families when needed, put aides into the home to teach parenting skills, give social workers more time for counseling, and refer families to multiservice community-sponsored programs. 

The number of northern Kentucky community-based programs, which boast a 75 percent success rate in keeping kids out of juvenile court, is growing even though community support is minimal. 

"When you have a juvenile in trouble with the law, most of the time he is part of a dysfunctional family," Commissioner Day said. "We'll be working much more intensely with that family. We hope to get involved with early intervention — people coming in as abused and neglected children." 

But the program still has a long way to go. 

"The one big thing we're lacking is any kind of aftercare," said Ray Frazier, director of the Central Kentucky Treatment Center in Louisville. 

"It's particularly a problem for our boys who turn 18 years of age. We do not have the resources to ease them into the community. We end up putting kids on the street." 

Mrs. Day has pledged to address what Richart calls the Achilles' heel of the system — self-monitoring of treatment facilities. 

"The principle of confidentiality, which appropriately protects the identity of children, also protects employee actions and shrouds juvenile programs and staff from closer inspection and scrutiny," he said in a statement last week. 

"There simply is no means by which children, their parents, employees or other interested people can complain about services provided to children in state-operated facilities, and feel that their complaint will be investigated impartially and resolved." 

After sending a special team to look into the complaints at the Kenton County facility, Mrs. Day announced the team would investigate 13 other treatment centers. She also promised to put an independent monitoring system into operation by the end of the year. 

Richart doesn't expect pockets of abuse in the residential facilities to disappear immediately, however. "I've been at this for 17 years," he said. "Improvement doesn't come overnight. But over the years, I have seen increments of improvement." 

The current increment won't resolve all the problems, said Bill Verbeten, state director of residential services. "There are always going to be kids that come back again and again. There are kids that we can't help. 

"That's a hard pill to swallow, but it's true." 


After Seven-Year Shuffle, Survival Comes First 

By Michele Day, Kentucky Post 

Rob's seven-year odyssey in the state juvenile services system is over. 

He journeyed through more than 20 foster homes, group homes, and juvenile camps before the state turned him loose on his eighteenth birthday this month. But Rob isn't sure he emerged from "treatment" any different from the parentless kid arrested for stealing at 11. 

"I'd probably steal if the right situation were to arrive . . . if I was hungry and didn't have money," he says between quick draws on a cigarette. "I won't ask nobody for nothing. I've got my pride. I guess my pride is more important to me than staying out of here." 

Counseling by people who care was supposed to make a good and honest man of Rob, a slender youth who looks more wide-eyed innocent than incorrigible. Instead, the confinement in the system made him mad enough to want to kill. 

"Being in here nine months, you get enough anger built up inside you, you could kill somebody when you walk out that door," he says. "The ones who get caught letting their anger out get locked back up. If they do something and don't get caught, then they can go on and get on with their life." 

Rob analyzes his life like the social workers who have raised him. He talks of pride as if it were some grand obelisk he discovered on his odyssey. And he has come to view justice as a game in which the goal is not to get caught . . . or to pretend you don't want to get caught. 

Rob's mother died when he was 11. His father is in a nursing home. He was sent to a state group home after he was caught stealing. He loved the place. But when he had to leave, Rob had no place to go. 

Social workers transferred him from group homes to foster homes. In frustration, Rob says, he often ran away. Each time, the state put him in another facility. 

Once he stole a car while he was AWOL. Another time he broke into a house and stole some guns, he says. 

Rob spent a year in the Northern Kentucky Treatment Center in Kenton County, three months in the Owensboro Treatment Center. He eventually wound up at Central Kentucky Treatment Center in Louisville, where the state's more serious juvenile delinquents are locked up. 

Rob earned a high school equivalency degree. He climbed to the top level at the camp on the strength of his performance in class and his behavior. 

Still, he was a kid nobody wanted. When he went home, his sister's boyfriend kicked him out. The state sent Rob to a foster home. He got a job and appeared to be making gains again. 

"Then my foster parents told me they didn't want me to stay there no more," he says. 

Rob moved to another foster home. He walked out when his foster father ordered him to go to his room. "There was no way at 17 I was going to go to my room. I was going to keep my pride. I decided if I leave this time, I'm not going to leave peacefully. I got right in his face and told him if he ever tried to tell me what to do again, I'd break every bone in his body." 

Police picked up Rob along the railroad tracks. 

He says they talked him into confessing to a robbery he didn't commit "I had a terrible headache and I was just tired of being hassled. I said, "Write down whatever you want." 

Social workers believe Rob wanted to be caught. "When you're cold and hungry, even a place like Central sounds good to you," says Ray Frazier, director of the center in Louisville. 

Camp workers say Rob didn't try his best to get back to the top level. Rob says he didn't care anymore. 

"The first time you get to Level 4 you feel like you've accomplished something — somebody's proud of you. But you come back again and it seems like it's a game." 

Rob must play a grown-up game now. He doesn't know where he'll go. 

"I guess anywhere I can. I'm going to travel. I've got about $700 saved up. I'm just going to do my best to stay out of prison. This last time [getting in trouble] sort of helped me to know how easy it is to avoid." 

He isn't sure he'll make it. 

He takes a long draw on his cigarette, then puts it out. 

"I just got this feeling I'm going to end up getting locked back up again. Just watching people, how things go, it just seems like a continuous cycle." 


The Homeless Child 

poem by Chuck Schoultheis 


Have you ever seen a homeless child 

Lost within the sea 

Of turbulence and confusion 

And of tranquility? 


Have you ever seen one 

With his heart broken wide 

With his thoughts confused 

And his emotions twisted inside? 


Poor, lost and misguided 

Knowing not where to turn 

Living in a nightmare 

Feeling his anger bum. 


But soon there is hope 

As the sun begins to shine 

Love is brought to misery 

And calmness to the mind.