A juvenile detention center staffer watched and failed to provide any assistance as Gynnya McMillen gasped amid a fatal seizure earlier this year, according to a federal lawsuit filed by her family Wednesday.
The suit, filed against the state Department of Juvenile Justice and several employees, alleges staff negligence led to the 16-year-old’s in-custody death at the Lincoln Village Regional Juvenile Detention Center in Hardin County.
A state investigation found that six employees failed to do regular bed checks and falsified departmental logs. Three of those employees have been fired since Gynnya’s death. The commissioner of the Juvenile Justice Department, Bob D. Hayter, was also fired shortly later. (Read KyCIR’s coverage of Gynnya McMillen’s case)
The federal lawsuit claims former supervisor Reginald Windham watched as Gynnya struggled during a seizure. (Read the lawsuit)
The suit highlights statements Windham made during an internal investigation, including comments that he heard sounds coming from Gynnya’s cell that caused him “to check on her to make sure she had not thrown up and was choking or something like that.”
Windham looked through a narrow slit in the cell’s door for about 18 seconds, watching “her last gasps and dying breaths and final uncontrollable movements and seizure,” the suit states. That check occurred at 11:39 p.m.
Though several other staffers visually checked Gynnya in subsequent hours, none noticed she was dead.
The lawsuit states her death wasn’t discovered until 9:55 a.m. the next day, more than 10 hours after Windham allegedly viewed her “last gasps.”
The DJJ’s internal investigation, cited in the lawsuit, noted: “The systematic breakdown led to staff possibly not noticing Gynnya in a medical distressed state. At the very least staff would have noticed Gynnya was unresponsive earlier than when she was discovered.”
The state agency released the following statement Thursday afternoon:
“We respect the family’s right to bring this action and remain deeply saddened by their loss. We have also fully complied with three independent investigations, all of which confirmed that this tragedy was the result of natural causes. After reviewing all the evidence, medical examiners were clear that this child passed away in her sleep, without any signs of distress that would have prompted medical attention.”
Gynnya had been in an altercation with staffers shortly after entering the facility and activists had questioned whether the struggle played a role in her death.
As part of the booking process, less than 24 hours before she died, Gynnya refused to remove her sweatshirt. Several staffers immobilized her via an Aikido-style restraint and removed the sweatshirt, officials said. (Read “Gynnya McMillen Restrained In Detention Center Altercation Before Her Death, State Says“)
The use of that style of restraint has come under great scrutiny. Last month, the Kentucky Department of Education ordered all public schools to stop using “Aikido Control Training” restraints amid questions over the method’s safety.
State officials determined Gynnya had a rare genetic condition and died of an irregular heartbeat. The lawsuit confirms that she died from a sudden cardiac arrhythmia, called long QT syndrome.
In March, a Hardin grand jury indicted former Lincoln Village supervisors Reginald Windham and Victor Holt each on one charge of second-degree official misconduct. Both pleaded not guilty. The pair, along with another staffer, Christopher Johnson, were fired for failing to properly check on Gynnya before she was found unresponsive in her room on the morning of Jan. 11.
Of 234 staff violations at DJJ facilities since 2010, about 29 percent of the complaints dealt with excessive or inappropriate use of force, according to a KyCIR analysis earlier this year.
KyCIR Managing Editor Brendan McCarthy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (502) 814.6541.