Whistleblower claims record number of juvenile murder charges follows cover-ups and dysfunction in Louisville youth detention

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- More teenagers were charged with murder in Louisville in 2017 than at any point in the city's history. Many of those juveniles spent time inside the Jefferson County Youth Detention Center, which in that same year, came under fire amidst a whistleblower claim of cover-ups, assault and mismanagement.

Former Youth Detention Services Supervisor Kendrah Sanders said there's a direct connection between dysfunction at the juvenile jail and young lives taking lives in Louisville's streets.

"I'm just going to be transparent," Sanders said. "It just leaves a bitter sadness in the pit of my stomach ... and then some anger too." 

For the last two years, Sanders supervised the social workers who oversaw the kids on home incarceration and house arrest for the juvenile jail. Anywhere from 50 to 100 teenagers, on any given day, are tracked wearing GPS monitoring anklets. They're assessed with a low, moderate or high risk of re-offending, and based on that assessment, the teenagers either get a weekly phone call or in-home visit from their social worker. 

But on far too many days, Sanders said, the dreaded call came with another one on home incarceration dead in the street or charged in the city's latest murder. 

One of those is 16-year-old Jeremiah Carter, who opened fire in downtown Louisville amidst a crowded Pegasus Parade in 2016. He was subsequently placed on home incarceration.

"At the very least, you have systems in place, you have policies in place, you have measures of accountability in place," Sanders said. "None of that is in place."

According to Carter's social worker's notes, he refused to go to school in September 2017 out of fear that someone was going to hurt him.

"The agency should have come up with a safety plan," Sanders said.

It didn't, and four weeks later, Carter was charged with the murder of 37-year-old Kontar Dwayne Roberson

"There's a lack of oversight, a lack of family engagement, a lack of services," Sanders said. "They've been let out just to do the same thing."

And there are numerous other cases. Troyvonte Hurt, 14, was shot in the back of the head during a drive-by in Smoketown. Both Hurt and the suspected shooter, 16-year-old Dominique Coleman, were on home supervision, Sanders said.

"The risk factors that were so obviously involved, we as an agency missed," she said. "The whole funeral was red and white gang colors ... even down to the hearse driving away."

Last year, 18 people under the age of 18 were charged with murder in Louisville. There were seven juveniles charged with murder in 2016, and the city was shocked then. LMPD Lt. Homicide Emily McKinley said she believes 18 in one year is a record.

Sanders said most of them had a connection to the juvenile jail. But one case in particular, she said, was "heart-wrenching."

Newlywed Jason Spencer was shot and killed during a robbery in the Highlands one day after returning from his honeymoon. LMPD charged four teenagers, including 16-year-olds Thaddius Thomas Jr. and Travon Curry

"(Curry) had made a threat to one of my workers, prior to that incident, that he was going to harm her," Sanders said.

In all, three of the suspects charged had already been through the juvenile justice system.

"This city deserves more," Sanders said. "It should demand more, that we do more to work with these kids to prevent things like this from happening."

And that's part of the problem. Youth Detention Services can't keep workers and can't keep those who stay happy.

"We have lots of issues," said Dr. Ursula Mullins, the new Director of Louisville Metro YDS. "When you think about the environment our staff are working in, it's definitely not a playground."

The agency's turnover rate is near 40 percent, the highest in Metro Government. Staffing shortages put employees in the secure part of the facility on mandatory overtime, working more than 60 hours a week and 16-hour shifts, two to three days a week. In addition, an AFSCME union dispute involving jail social workers in the community turned into a class action grievance, and Metro Louisville paid more than $200,000 to settle it. Under the agreement, social workers had to switch to add a third overnight shift instead of the prior on-call schedule. 

Throughout the agency, moral tanked, and workplace incidents began to rise. According to city Louistat records, YDS lost 3,700 hours in a year due to workplace injuries and illnesses, three times the city's goal. 

One woman, who was a certified officer in two states and a veteran with 24 years of service, lasted only two months at YDS.

"Staff workers have no protection inside that facility," the woman told Metro Council. "Workers being assaulted, being forced to have to work mandatory or having to work with residents that have assaulted them ... none of my complaints were ever addressed, aside from me being terminated."

Sanders contacted the State Department of Juvenile Justice, the attorney general and Mayor Greg Fischer's office with a whistleblower complaint, claiming a culture of cover-ups, cooked books and deep systemic issues. She provided WDRB News with a memo containing Assistant Director Carla Kirby's YDS signature, which she said is an example of how staff was directed to cover up problems:

"Just to be clear. Whenever something occurs that is out of the ordinary, that makes you shake your head in disbelief, that involved an ambulance or a police officer, could immediately rise to the subject of a 'crisis,' or make the news then you are requested to immediately call, text or email (Mullins) and copy me with the information ... If you must send something via email that is confidential or related to a private personnel matter then on the subject line note 'internal draft only.' These are not subject to Open Records."

The email was listed as internal draft only.

"I've exhausted every possibility that I can," she said. "I have to let the public know that it's an issue so somebody can fix it."

The juvenile jail was under 27-year LMPD veteran Col. Yvette Gentry's leadership from April 2015 to October 2017. The department reported to Gentry as Fischer's Chief of Community Building, but medical complications kept her out of many operations. Still, Gentry had two brief stints acting as YDS director while the city searched for someone to fill the role permanently. 

"There was no higher level of transparency," Gentry said. "We want better outcomes for kids. That's totally the highest level of transparency you can get."

Gentry said YDS scored top marks in all routine inspections including a 99 percent on its most recent review by the American Correctional Association. Gentry claimed Sanders was on the brink of being fired and only filed a whistleblower complaint to save her own job. Still, Gentry admits the juvenile system is broken.

"The system here will never be able to do the right thing for those kids, because it's not designed," she said.

The difference between adult and juvenile correction is that the kids' jail is meant to be rehabilitative. But Gentry said YDS was set up for 21-day stays, and many teenagers are on six or nine months, with some going on two years.

"Probably the saddest day you will ever see is a kid celebrate their 18th birthday in a tunnel going from juvenile jail to adult jail," Gentry said.

They leave hardened, walking into a vicious cycle.

"You want me to tell you what happened months ago as a result of it?" Gentry said "A kid got shot down less than a week (after leaving YDS).

"It's not uncommon."

Louisville saw 18 murder victims between the age of 18 and 20 in 2017. Gentry said she tried to stop that cycle herself, requesting an audit from the Center for Children's Law Policy, a national non-profit agency considered an expert in juvenile detention. It exposed troubling practices in the detention center, including:

  • Ill-trained and inexperienced workers locking children in their rooms as a response to mental illness
  • Kids who didn't go to class every day, one of the center's own rules
  • At least five workers fired in a year under the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA)  

"A lack of mental health resources, staffing shortages and turnover, and excessive use of room confinement have created a dangerous situation in parts of the facility," auditors reported.

The findings of the Center for Children's Law Policy audit were affirming to Sanders. She resigned at the end of 2017, ending an 18-year career with the state but shining a spotlight of scrutiny on a system locked away from the public eye. 

"Years and years and years of mismanagement, personnel and staffing issues and shortages and shortfalls and budget cuts ... I just think light and dark can't exist at the same time," she said.

This story launches a week-long series into our city's juvenile justice system. The flaws in home incarceration are just part of the problem. Five workers have been fired under the Prison Rape Elimination Act, but none have been charged and the city said there was no rape.

On Monday, we'll dig into what did and didn't happen with kids and how the jail responded.

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