Investigations

One year ago today, 16-year-old Gynnya McMillen died alone in a locked room inside a Kentucky juvenile detention center.

Her death, the first in a Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice facility since 1999, led to protests, firings, indictments and more. A year later, state officials say much has changed — though at least one promise from DJJ remains unfulfilled.

What happened to Gynnya?

Gynnya entered Lincoln Village Regional Juvenile Detention Center in Hardin County on Jan. 10, 2016, and was pronounced dead the next morning.

She was taken there after a confrontation with her mother. When Gynnya refused to remove her sweatshirt during the booking process, several staffers immobilized her via an Aikido-style restraint, a move that later came under great scrutiny.

The next morning, Gynnya did not respond to offers of food or a telephone call from her mother. When a deputy entered the locked room shortly before 10 a.m. to take her to court, she was dead.

The mysterious nature of her death, and questions about the restraint, led to protests and a public outcry.

Taz Gordon, of The Voices Unheard, was among the activists at the Capitol. "Governor, what type of action are you going to take?" he asked.

Taz Gordon, of The Voices Unheard, was among the activists at the Capitol. “Governor, what type of action are you going to take?” he asked.

An autopsy found Gynnya died in her sleep from a rare heart condition known as sudden cardiac arrhythmia. But a state internal investigation also faulted six employees for failing to do regular bed checks and for falsifying departmental logs.

In an interview Tuesday, Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Secretary John Tilley said significant reforms have been made in the year since — but he emphasized that plans for some changes, such as re-training all superintendents and supervisors, were not in response to Gynnya’s death but in the works already.

Discipline for staff breaking rules is more severe than before, Tilley said. Before any employees are promoted now, Tilley said, any past discipline history is reviewed. Records showed that the supervisor on duty during Gynnya’s death had a past history of excessive force.

Internal investigations have also been beefed up to be proactive instead of reactive since Gynnya’s death, Tilley said: Investigators now make frequent, unscheduled visits and review videos to ensure they match logs and incident reports.

Detention center charges, lawsuit still pending

Three employees at Lincoln Village were fired in connection with the state investigation.

Two of those employees, Reginald Windham and Victor Holt, were indicted by a Hardin County grand jury in March on a misdemeanor charge of official misconduct.

Both men have pleaded not guilty. A pretrial hearing is scheduled for March 17. Their attorney, J. Clark Baird of Louisville, did not respond to requests for comment.

According to Tilley, up to 10 additional staffers have been suspended or otherwise disciplined for offenses in state detention centers — like skipping bed checks or falsifying logs — since more frequent monitoring began.

(Read KyCIR’s coverage of Gynnya McMillen)

Michelle McMillen, Gynnya’s mother, filed suit in federal court last August against Windham, Holt and 11 other current or former DJJ employees. The suit alleges that staff negligence led to Gynnya’s death.

The suit also claims that one staffer watched and failed to provide any assistance as she gasped and struggled through a fatal seizure.

Little of substance has transpired in the case since it was filed. Attorneys James. M. Bolus Jr. and Ronald Hillerich did not respond to requests for comment. McMillen could not be reached for comment.

Department of Juvenile Justice says reforms in place

The department is now under new leadership with Commissioner Carey Cockerell, the former head of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.

Former Commissioner Bob Hayter was fired less than a month after Gynnya’s death. Cockerell took over in September.

The department was led in the interim by its former general counsel, LaDonna Koebel, who has since left for a new job in the state Personnel Cabinet. She announced plans last year for an outside firm to review and potentially suggest an overhaul of departmental policies in the wake of Gynnya’s death.

That hasn’t been done. Tilley said Tuesday that the department chose instead to focus on a thorough internal review while they waited for new leadership. Justice for Gynnya McMillen

Now that Cockerell is on the job, Tilley said, they are looking at consulting firms and hope to announce a contract at the end of January.

“It’s important for this commissioner to be comfortable with the direction we are taking,” Tilley said.

Also high on the department’s priorities, Tilley said, is boosting pay for youth workers. They start now at $11 an hour, he said, and they have very high turnover for those in youth detention center jobs.

TIlley said they plan to use savings created by a drop in youth detention rates to help fund pay increases.

Why was she sent to juvenile detention center?

One nagging question about Gynnya’s death is why she was taken to Lincoln Village in the first place.

Gynnya had lived at Louisville’s Maryhurst, the state’s oldest child-welfare agency, in the six months prior to her death. She and her mother clashed in the early morning hours of Jan. 10 while she visited for the weekend at a Shelbyville apartment complex.

McMillen called 911, alleging that Gynnya had assaulted her.

Shelbyville police went to the scene, and called a court-designated worker, a state employee who processes complaints involving juveniles.

Tilley, the justice secretary, said Gynnya should have never ended up in detention. But there was an “inability for folks to understand if she had come from a private care home.”

He declined to elaborate on the communication breakdown, saying he didn’t want to assign blame to another agency. But he said it’s been corrected.

Now, the court-designated worker on call has access 24-7 to placement information about any child who is under the care of any government agency, Tilley said. He said it’s his “understanding” that information wasn’t available the night Gynnya was put in detention.

“When that call is made, there won’t be any question as to where that child needs to go,” Tilley said.

Judy Lambeth, Maryhurst’s president and CEO, said the staff will mark the anniversary of Gynnya’s death in their minds and hearts.

“We will grieve her passing because we saw such great hope and potential in her life,” Lambeth said.

Lambeth said the saddest part was that Gynnya died in a detention center.

“If they’d brought her back to Maryhurst, at least she would have died in a place where she knew she was loved,” Lambeth said. “She loved the staff, and the staff loved her.”

Reporter R.G. Dunlop can be reached at rdunlop@kycir.org or (502) 814.6533. Kate Howard can be reached at khoward@kycir.org and (502) 814.6546. 

This story was reported by WFPL’s Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting

Kate Howard is a veteran investigative reporter specializing in government accountability and higher education issues.
R.G. Dunlop is an investigative reporter whose work has exposed government corruption and resulted in numerous reforms.