EXCLUSIVE: Juvenile facility employees, former employees speak out


Whistleblowers paint picture of youth neglect, danger for staff

Editor’s note: The Community Voice rarely includes anonymous sources but is making an exception in this case to allow employees a chance to speak out about conditions of concern at the Adair Youth Development Center. At least two people supported each claim in this article.

A riot at the Adair Youth Development Center has exposed an environment where workers fear for their lives on a daily basis and whistleblowers report that youth are denied basic human rights on a daily basis, according to current and former employees of the local juvenile facility.

The Community Voice interviewed six people who are employed at the center or say they quit working there after their warnings to local management and high-ranking officials were ignored. All six told alarming tales of youth being assaulted, denied food and/or medical care, and being treated like caged animals. Three spoke publicly.

The youth at the facility have been put on 24-hour lock-down, reportedly because of a staff shortage. The six whistleblowers say the shortages are not as much about worker pay scales as they are about the working environment, and the mismanagement is causing the worker shortage, not the other way around.

“We shouldn’t be afraid for our life when we walk through the front door. I shouldn’t have to fear that I’m going to be shanked in the neck and not see my (family) that night,” one said. The facility employee said it has not always been that way, but conditions have deteriorated over a period of time but in particular during the past few months.

Three former employees, all nurses, came forward publicly after Friday’s riot to talk about what they personally witnessed while working at the facility and the efforts they made to bring attention to the problems. All three said they left their jobs because they refused to be part of neglect taking place in the facility and were unable to make any headway in getting anything changed. Joanne Alvarado, Nina Burton and Beth Johnson met with the Community Voice and Natalia Martinez, an investigative reporter with WAVE-3 in Louisville. Martinez and WAVE investigated the conditions at the Jefferson Regional Juvenile Detention Center in Lyndon, which was shut down earlier this month. Officials said that facility shut down due to fire-safety issues, but the closure came after investigations exposing dangerous conditions for the youth and the workers.

WAVE 3 Investigative reporter Natalia Martinez will have a report on the Adair County Youth Development Center today, Wednesday, Nov. 16.  You can visit them online at https://www.wave3.com/

Some detainees from the Lyndon facility were brought to the Adair facility. The whistleblowers said that is part of the problem, but the problems were already there long before the new juveniles were added. The Community Voice and WAVE agreed to allow whistleblowers anonymity, but Alvarado, Burton and Johnson agreed to speak publicly and be recorded by WAVE.

“We’ve been saying something like this is going to happen,” Alvarado said. She said she reached out to numerous officials in the past and testified before the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet’s Internal Investigations Branch in Frankfort about one incident of abuse.

Burton said she loved working at the facility but could not work under the circumstances she experienced. She said she resigned Oct. 6 and made sure officials knew why. “I left because of the cover-ups, the lies, and not being able to do my job,” Burton said.

“I even put in my resignation letter that policies and procedures were being broken, but nobody even bothered to call me about it.”

All three women said they had experienced times when they were not allowed to check on a juvenile after an incident when policy and procedure required a medical assessment. They voiced concern about the lack of mental health assistance for the youth and Burton said some of conditions were “emotional torment.”

Alvarado, who was a staff nurse, said she was aware of cases when a person was supposed to go into isolation for 24 hours but would be left for a week.  Johnson, who was a staff nurse hired through an agency, said isolation is one thing, “but they will go to the point of deprivation. Light. Sound. They will tell people to not talk to them. It’s beyond what you would think is normal punishment.”

Johnson said one juvenile was not fed for three days. Food was left outside the person’s door but beyond their reach.

Whistleblowers say there should be one floor person for eight detainees during the day, and one per 10 at night. That requirement is much more flexible when the juveniles are under lock-down, however. Since the youth have been put on lock-down, they rarely leave their cells. One whistleblower indicated that food trays have been taken to the cells for more than seven months now. Showers are rare, with one whistle blower reporting that one juvenile received only two showers in a one-month period. Providing showers is a challenge with a short staff because another staff person would have to cover a unit for the youth worker who escorted someone to the shower.  Trips to the gym are rare, with one whistleblower saying a couple of groups might be taken to the gym for an hour one day, but it may be a few days later before another group got the opportunity.

employees go public Natalia Martinez, an investigative reporter with WAVE 3, interviews Joanne Alvarado, Nina Burton and Beth Johnson, former employees at the Adair Youth Development Center.

Lack of Structure

Several of the whistleblowers agreed that staffing shortages are not because of the current job market but are happening because good employees find working there unbearable. While some are staying for various reasons, they are finding it impossible to feel like they are doing the work they want to do.

Administration in the past has always worked hard to a paint a picture for the community of a facility that offers youth one last hope and opportunity to change course toward a productive life as an adult.  Educational programs, a shop that juveniles could earn the opportunity to work in, counseling and mentoring – these programs were available to give a juvenile headed down the wrong path a second chance. Longtime employees say that picture was true – but it is a memory of better days that are long gone.

“It deteriorated so fast,” said one employee. When asked what had changed, the employee said, “Leadership.”

Current staff are quick to place blame on superintendent Tonya Burton, with several whistleblowers stating that she is aware of what they consider safety concerns but does nothing to address them. Training is not being done on a timely matter, one whistleblower said. The first call to 911 Friday night came from an employee who said he was new and he was not sure what he was supposed to do or who he should call.

“At this point there is no rehabilitation. We are caging these guys in and they got loose and guess what happened. They acted like animals, the way they have been treated.”

Loose Practices

Sources say Friday night’s incident occurred after a staff member opened a cell door to hand a resident some bathroom tissue and the juvenile attacked him. Whistleblowers say the worker broke the rules, but that’s not uncommon or necessarily frowned upon. “He didn’t follow policy, but when do we ever?” one employee said.

Those things didn’t happen in the past, says those who have been employees for several years. “We had structure and everybody seemed happy to come to work. But now, no. The morale now, there isn’t any. It’s terrible,” one employee said.

Another employee said Friday’s riot is a direct result of the way the facility is being managed. “At this point there is no rehabilitation. We are caging these guys in and they got loose and guess what happened. They acted like animals, the way they have been treated.”

The whistleblower said many workers are trying to make the best of the situation but feel like their lives are in danger. “We are doing everything we can. They are doing everything they can just to keep these kids in their room. They talk about it like, ‘Oh, we do what we can. We just don’t have the staff, so we are just doing this or just doing that.’ But at the end of the day, if you really wanted those kids to come out of their room, you will get out of your office, you will come back from your 20 plus smoke breaks, and you will come down here and you will let these kids out. I think you are scared. You are sending us to do your dirty work for you and we are getting hurt for it.”

The Community Voice reached out to Morgan Hall, office of communications with the Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, Department of Juvenile Justice, twice by email and once by phone since Friday’s incident. On Tuesday night, an email was sent asking for response to specific allegations in this article. A response was received right at presstime Wednesday. The response is available below in its entirety

Hall stated in an earlier email that the riot is “unacceptable and the department will seek criminal charges against those involved.”

In addition to the criminal investigation led by KSP, the Internal Investigations Branch of the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet has opened an investigation.  “DJJ will conduct a thorough review to determine if applicable policies were followed and identify further actions that should be taken,” she said.

By Sharon Burton






WAVE 3 Coverage:


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