Two former supervisors at Arkansas youth lockup plead guilty to abuse of detainees

Two former supervisors of an Arkansas juvenile lockup confessed Wednesday in federal court to assaulting and needlessly punishing detained youths and conspiring with other workers to cover up their abuses by falsifying use-of-force documents.

Peggy Kendrick, 43, and Dennis Fuller, 40, were in charge of the White River Juvenile Detention Center in Independence County when they worked together to "injure, oppress, threaten and intimidate juveniles" between 2012 and 2014, according to U.S. District Court records.

This included pepper-spraying compliant youths who did not pose a threat, including a 16-year-old girl being held at the facility for behavioral problems rather than actions that would be considered criminal if committed by an adult, and a 14-year-old asleep in his bunk.

Youths doused in pepper spray often were shut in their cells without going through decontamination in order to "let them cook," a phrase attributed to Kendrick and Fuller repeatedly in court records.

An unnamed officer also grabbed a youth from his bed and began to choke him, the federal charging document states.

That officer later wrote an incident report claiming the teen swung at him, but other employees filed grievances challenging the officer's account. The officer subsequently resigned but was rehired by Kendrick the following month, the records show.

Each questionable incident was punctuated with a falsified incident report, according to the documents.

Kendrick and Fuller entered guilty pleas before U.S. District Judge James Moody after formal criminal charges were filed Wednesday. They waived their rights to go through the grand jury process, Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Given said.

Not all of the youths housed in the White River facility near Batesville are in state custody. Still, the facility is required to treat youths and provide documentation according to standards set by the state Youth Services Division.

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A spokesman from the Department of Human Services, which oversees the division, did not provide comment about the case in time for this article.

The White River detention center's treatment of children has been called into question before.

In December 2014, according to an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette report, state officials decided to stop sending state-custody youths there because staff members improperly used a mechanical restraint chair, handcuffs and 23-hour lockdowns for minor offenses, such as banging on doors or talking. Youths also were threatened with the use of Tasers, even when their actions did not pose a threat.

A week before that decision, the state removed seven youths from Yell County Juvenile Detention Center, also for the facility's abusive treatment. The Democrat-Gazette revealed that teens often were placed in a full-body restraint system called "The Wrap" and then pepper-sprayed.

The Youth Services Division vowed then to work with juvenile detention staff at both centers to change bad practices. The division later sent children in state custody back to the facilities.

Independence County Judge Robert Griffin said he knew "something just wasn't right" at the county-run youth lockup in Batesville years ago.

Griffin said he asked a former White River center administrator to conduct an internal audit of the detention facility in 2014 because Griffin had been "waiting way too long" for federal authorities to act after tipping off the FBI of potential civil-rights violations taking place there.

The audit pointed out that "there was bad leadership," and Griffin dismissed Kendrick, who "left without comment," Griffin said. Fuller soon followed.

Griffin did not provide dates of their dismissals.

The county judge also insists that the falsified reports prevented the possibility of any further action at the county level.

"I am just appalled that any employee would treat children that way," he said. "If we had any idea if that was going on, we would have hit them with local charges and not have waited."

Griffin said he is confident that the White River center is a different place now. Local school district employees and therapists work at the site, and the new facility manager was carefully selected, he said.

Recent Youth Services Division audits, filed in April 2015 and September 2016, showed the White River center to be in compliance with almost all state requirements. None of the children interviewed reported being subjected to the use of pepper spray, locked in their rooms or restrained.

Federal officials responding to the case said they were "appalled at what occurred" and called the actions of Kendrick and Fuller and the staff they supervised "reprehensible" and "incomprehensible."

"I understand the difficult job [correction officers] have, but that is not an excuse for assaulting a juvenile and obstructing an investigation," said acting U.S. Attorney Patrick Harris in a prepared statement released Wednesday. "In fact, there is no excuse for that."

Kendrick faces a maximum sentence of 40 years in prison; Fuller, 10 years. A sentencing hearing will be set once pre-sentence investigation reports are filed.

White River is not the only detention center that has used pepper spray as a restraint.

Youth Services Division audits from 2015 and 2016 show that Jefferson Juvenile Detention Center officers used pepper spray multiple times.

The reports did not detail specific cases.

A Section on 04/27/2017