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Detained Kentucky teens denied toilets, showers and clothes, suit says

One minor was held in isolation without lights, and another in a cell that had a Spanish version of the song ‘Baby Shark’ playing on loop, the lawsuit alleges

A fenced facility can be seen in the background. In the foreground, a blue sign by an entry road reads "Department of Juvenile Justice Adair Youth Development Center"
The Adair Youth Development Center in Adair County, Ky. (WAVE 3)
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Willow Neal was 17-years-old and seven months pregnant when she was sent to an isolation cell in the Adair Youth Development Center in Columbia, Ky., in November 2022, a new lawsuit alleges. She rarely left.

Neal was only let out of her cell five times to take a walk, and received just 12 showers during her month-long detention, isolation that went against the advice of her medical providers, according to the lawsuit.

In the cell next to Neal’s, 17-year-old Jamiahia Kennedy resorted to washing her body with her bra after being denied showers, according to the lawsuit. For two months, Kennedy was allegedly moved to a soiled padded cell without a bed or a working toilet.

Staff allegedly subjected other minors in the juvenile detention center to various abuses. One was held in an isolation cell without lights or running water, and another in a cell that had a Spanish version of the song “Baby Shark” playing on loop, the lawsuit states.

Neal and Kennedy, who are both now 18 and released from the detention center, described the alleged abuses in a class-action lawsuit filed Monday against the detention center, the Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice, the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services and several employees who allegedly ignored repeated reports of poor conditions at the prison. The lawsuit adds to complaints the state’s juvenile justice system has faced over several years.

“It’s an open secret that the system has been completely dysfunctional for some time,” Laura Landenwich, an attorney for Neal and Kennedy who spoke on their behalf, told The Washington Post.

The Kentucky agencies named in the suit deny the allegations, said spokeswoman Morgan Hall, who added that the state “works tirelessly to provide safe and effective services to the juveniles in its care.”

“For any staff member who violates policy and procedure, corrective action is taken. We deny the allegations in the lawsuit and will defend accordingly,” Hall said.

The detention center houses around 40 minors at a time and holds pre- and post-conviction juvenile offenders as well as non-offenders in the custody of the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services, according to Neal and Kennedy’s lawsuit. The suit seeks damages for anyone who has been abused while held in isolation at the detention center.

Children detained at the center had restricted access to showers, restrooms and medical care, and were not provided educational instruction, according to the lawsuit. As punishment, staff allegedly withheld prescribed medications from detainees. Male staff conducted cell checks on girls detained without clothing, the suit alleged.

Neal passed through multiple foster homes and experienced abusive environments in foster care before being held at the detention center, Landenwich said. She was held at the center after being charged with stealing a vehicle, according to her attorney.

“She has been left to the whims of a system that is frankly, cruel,” Landenwich said. “ … No one’s been able to really effectively help her.”

While held in isolation, Neal, who had not yet finished high school, did not receive educational instruction and instead was given workbooks to complete, which conferred no school credit, the suit alleged. Neal, who was diagnosed with mental health conditions, did not receive mental health care or any prescribed medications while at the detention center, the court filings said.

Kennedy was allegedly only able to take 15 showers in the four months she was detained at the center. When she was transferred to a padded cell, she allegedly had her clothes cut off and was initially held without clothing or shower access for 12 days, the suit said. She also had medication withheld from her as a form of punishment, according to the suit.

Landenwich said the detention center’s pattern of mistreatment stemmed from chronic understaffing and poor training. It frequently operated with only five employees to oversee the facility’s 40 minors, according to the lawsuit.

Kentucky’s juvenile detention centers have long faced reports of mismanagement and neglect. In November 2022, a riot broke out at the Adair detention center, which left several youths and staff members wounded, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D) in January 2023 pledged to raise pay for detention center staff — and arm them with pepper spray and Tasers. The state legislature in March approved two bipartisan bills that boosted funding for detention center salaries, facility upgrades and mental health care, including the establishment of a diversionary program that would send youths suffering from mental illnesses to facilities for treatment.

Landenwich said she is not convinced conditions have improved — and that any change would come too late for those who’ve already endured abuse.

Upon release from the center, Kennedy completed her high school education, got a job and is adjusting to a new start as an adult, Landenwich said. But Neal struggled with the lasting impacts of her detainment and lost custody of her child, who was born after Neal turned 18 and aged out of the foster care system, Landenwich added.

“She told me that she promised herself she’d never let her child get in the system,” Landenwich said. “And because she was so ill-equipped to care for the child, the state now has custody of her child and has put her in the exact same circumstance to suffer.”