The state Youth Services Division announced Tuesday that it will stop sending youths to the Yell County Juvenile Detention Center in Danville until it is satisfied that methods of punishment exposed by an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette investigation are properly investigated.
Seven youths already at the facility will remain there temporarily while awaiting space elsewhere, state officials said.
Also Tuesday, Capt. John Foster, the chief deputy for Yell County Sheriff Bill Gilkey, who operates the lockup, said the sheriff is seeking an independent "review" of the lockup but has not named the agency or organization to conduct the investigation.
"We will be asking for an independent review, which will include the reports you mentioned, but we are still working out the details," Foster wrote in an email.
Foster referred to at least five cases that the newspaper revealed in a series of stories that chronicled youths being punished with pepper spray, hogtying or a restraint known as The Wrap.
Amy Webb, spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Human Services, said the Youth Services Division was previously unaware of the incidents and the division supports an independent investigation or review of them.
"Until that [investigation or review] is completed and we feel comfortable that our concerns about these past incidents have been addressed, we will not be placing any new children at the facility," Webb said.
The Youth Services Division has paid the Yell County lockup more than $1.2 million for housing an average of 21 youths per month over the past four years. Through the first 11 months of this year, the 24-bed lockup billed the division an average of $35,724 per month, payment invoices show.
The decision Tuesday will cut off those per diem payments for any new youths and leave only payments for the care of seven remaining youths.
Webb said the seven youths will remain because their time at the facility is "temporary" and division officials "feel comfortable that the facility has made some significant improvements."
"They've removed The Wrap. They've removed the pepper spray. We feel like the youth that are there can safely remain in that temporary placement," she said, noting that the division is closely monitoring the lockup and a division staff member was on site Tuesday.
The Yell County facility also holds youths who have been ordered by a judge to serve short-term detention for various offenses, including getting in trouble at school or violating the terms of probation. The Youth Services Division's decision doesn't affect those youths because it does not have authority over them.
Gilkey removed The Wrap from the facility on Oct. 1 after Scott Tanner, the juvenile ombudsman at the Arkansas Public Defender Commission, discovered that the device was being used for punishment and alerted the Youth Services Division.
Foster has said that the sheriff was unaware of how the device was being used. The sheriff also had pepper spray removed from the facility at the same time as The Wrap, Foster said.
The Youth Services Division's decision Tuesday came after the newspaper published its latest findings on how the Yell County lockup punished youths over the past four years.
The Democrat-Gazette found that in more than 100 cases Yell County lockup staff members or local law enforcement officers used restraints, pepper spray or sometimes a combination of both in dealing with youths who misbehaved by "mouthing," not following directions, banging on walls, kicking doors, yelling or name-calling.
The newspaper uncovered the pattern after reviewing internal incident reports obtained from the youth lockup through the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.
The reports revealed a facility where top administrators authorized, and in some cases participated in, punishments for youths, in violation of state juvenile-detention standards.
In a story published Sunday, the newspaper also disclosed five cases that two juvenile justice advocates with extensive experience investigating youth lockups called "dangerous," "anti-therapeutic" and clear civil-rights violations.
The five incidents occurred at the Yell County lockup over the past three years, and Youth Services Division officials say that three of the youths involved were in state custody at the time.
• In January 2012, a sheriff's deputy pepper-sprayed a girl while she was in The Wrap -- her hands cuffed behind her back, legs bound and chest strapped with a harness that tied to her feet. A staff member justified using the chemical by saying the girl had been "belligerent" while tied up.
• In May 2012, a staff member hogtied two youths for two hours because they had been fighting. He let them loose to eat but put them back in restraints because they had been disrespectful while tied up.
• In June 2013, a staff member put a youth in The Wrap for six hours -- with a 23-minute break after the first two hours and a 12-minute break after the second two hours.
• In July 2013, a boy exhibiting suicidal behavior was put in The Wrap, but the device didn't calm him down. Instead, he continued to harm himself by banging his head on the ground, and the facility's director, Kristi Padgett, told staff members to remove the boy from the restraint. "Once removed he was pepper sprayed," the report concludes.
• In December 2013, Padgett pepper-sprayed a youth for "mouthing." He was then placed in The Wrap for making verbal threats while a staff member was cleaning the chemicals off him.
Padgett has since left the lockup and taken a job with the Department of Human Services. She has not responded to messages left on her cellphone over the past few weeks.
Robin Barefield, who has since replaced Padgett as director, was involved in the incident in which the girl was pepper-sprayed while in The Wrap. She has declined to comment and referred questions to the sheriff's office.
In response to questions about the incidents last week, the Youth Services Division raised the prospect of dissolving its agreement with the Yell County lockup in light of the newspaper's findings.
"[Ending the agreement] is a possibility given that there were very serious and inappropriate incidents of which DYS was never informed. The county's response to the latest incidents will drive our level of confidence in the commitment to systemic changes," the division said in a written statement.
On Tuesday, Webb said the state agency believes that Yell County officials have changed the culture at the facility that allowed employees to routinely punish youths with restraints and other methods.
Employees are undergoing training, and the county has been cooperating with the division, she said.
"However, we were concerned that there were serious incidents that they did not report to us. We also were concerned about the nature of those incidents," Webb said. "We want to get some additional information and see if there are any additional actions that need to be taken before we would commit to continuing to use that facility."
Webb said she couldn't comment on whether any of the incidents identified by the newspaper were reported as abuse or maltreatment to the state child abuse hotline of the Arkansas State Police Crimes Against Children Division. Those investigations are secret under state law.
"We will follow the law. If we have reasonable cause to suspect that there may have been child maltreatment, we would report that and state police Crimes Against Children would handle any of that," she said.
Webb said that she couldn't say whether Youth Services Division officials want the sheriff's office to have a law enforcement agency conduct the independent review rather than a consultant or other group with lesser legal authority.
"I think we just need to wait and see what they're proposing to do. I don't want to speculate on who we would want," she said.
A Section on 12/24/2014
Print Headline: State cuts off Yell County from jail kids