GEORGETOWN, Ky. — A mother says her developmentally delayed son was choked, scratched and verbally abused at the same Kentucky youth facility where a 7-year-old boy’s death by suffocation is under investigation by police.
Autumn Janeway said her son Anthony, 11, endured “physical and emotional abuse” at the Brooklawn facility in Louisville during his stay from July 2021 until March.
Janeway, who on Friday filed a lawsuit against the facility’s parent company alleging negligence, said she had voluntarily checked Anthony into the location for private residential therapeutic treatment for a litany of issues: attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, and because the boy was harming himself and his younger siblings, and running away.
She said she struggled to keep Anthony — who is developmentally delayed and had been in special needs care since he was 5 — at home and was constantly anxious about his and his siblings’ safety.
Brooklawn, which is owned and operated by the nonprofit organization Uspiritus and treats children with mental and behavioral needs, was the first residential home Anthony lived in.
“I needed help and when you take a parent like me that is desperate to get their child help, we put trust into places like Brooklawn.”
That trust was quickly tested, she said.
'She choked me'
On Oct. 3, 2021, Janeway said, her son told her during an early morning phone call that he was being “choked” by employees at the facility, according to the lawsuit, which names Uspiritus and Seven Counties Services, another company in the same management group.
She said she, her fiance and her other three children immediately drove an hour west from her home in Georgetown to Brooklawn.
She tried to get into Anthony’s cottage but was taken by the facility director to another building where her son was brought to her, she said. After hugging her son, she saw “bright red circular marks and bruising” around his neck, according to the lawsuit.
She removed his shirt and found “other darker colored contusions” on his chest and clavicle, the lawsuit says.
“I absolutely lost it. I hit the floor. I was so emotional,” Janeway said. “I didn’t know what to do.”
According to her suit, “at no time prior” to her arriving was she “notified that her son had been injured or had received medical care for the injuries to his neck.”
The facility director told her the marks were the result of a restraint position her son had been placed in, according to the lawsuit, an explanation Janeway said she didn’t buy because of the locations of his bruises.
In a statement to NBC News, Uspiritus said it was “unable to comment on specific personnel matters and the private health information of the individuals mentioned at this time.”
Anthony told NBC News that the marks on his body were caused by a staff member who wrung his neck with two hands and scratched him with her “long nails.”
He identified the staff member as “Miss Debbie” in the lawsuit’s account of this incident.
“She choked me,” Anthony said. “She had this smile or smirk on her face while she did it.”
“I was always scared,” he said.
Anthony said he was choked in his room when the two were alone and no one was able to help him.
According to the lawsuit, Anthony said he “witnessed other children being abused and choked by Miss Debbie, including once when she held a child by his neck above the floor and slammed him down.
Do you have a story to share with NBC News?
Uspiritus declined to identify “Miss Debbie” or answer questions about whether she is still employed with the organization.
Janeway said she wanted to call the police before seeing her son, but was told not to by the facility director because an officer would upset the other children, according to the lawsuit. The director, she said, assured her that Brooklawn would report the incident to the Kentucky Department of Community Based Services for investigation, as well as conduct its own investigation, according to the lawsuit.
It is unclear if the matter was reported to the state agency, which denied a public records request.
Janeway didn’t call the police. The decision still haunts her, she said.
“That was a big mistake on my part. I truly believed that they were really going to investigate and were really going to do something and do right by my son,” she said. “I had hope that maybe it was a restraint, maybe he tried to fight it because when I restrain him at home, I know it’s a little bit of a challenge. So you hold his arms down and just sit with him and we work through it.”
Janeway said she never received any information regarding the investigation, according to the suit. By the end of October 2021, she said, she gave up trying to find out the results.
“After a while, I just stopped asking because I knew nobody was listening and I knew it wasn’t getting anywhere. I was sick and tired of wasting my breath and I just kind of held on to this hope that they did what they were supposed to do.”
She still does not know who caused the marks on her son’s skin, according to the lawsuit.
Previous allegations of abuse
Last month, an NBC News investigation into Brooklawn detailed allegations of wrongdoing and abuse over several years leading up to the July 17 death of Ja’Ceon Terry, a 7-year-old who was a ward of the state and had been staying at the facility. He died of “positional asphyxia,” according to the Jefferson County Coroner’s Office, which also ruled his death a homicide.
On the day Ja’Ceon died, a program manager recalled being told that the child had been held in a chokehold by two employees and that he began to vomit, according to a source with knowledge of the encounter.
Two employees involved in the death have been dismissed, the facility said. However, no charges have been filed and police and state officials say they are still investigating.
“He should not have died on our watch. As protectors of Kentucky’s most vulnerable children, we are dedicated to making sure it never happens again. The health and safety of the Brooklawn family is always our top priority,” the company said last month.
As of Nov. 14, 27 children who are in state custody remain in Brooklawn’s care, according to the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services, down from the 32 who were there last month, according to the facility. The state did not answer questions about where the children who are no longer at the facility were sent.
Ja’Ceon’s death exposed critical cracks in Kentucky’s foster care system, including dwindling staffing, according to child advocacy groups that hope the tragedy will bolster a push to have a body outside state government oversee foster facilities.
It also raised questions about the facility’s use of restraints on children.
Rebekah Frank, a former Brooklawn employee who worked at the facility in 2018, said that she witnessed dozens of interactions in which staffers used restraints that were in violation of their training program, which taught that physical restraint should be a last resort.
“You’re not supposed to put them up against anything, because you’re not supposed to restrict breathing at all. It’s just about containing the chaos. It’s not about restraint so much as it is securing them,” she said last month, referring to her training. “These kids had experienced so much trauma already, so if you’re putting a child against a wall to teach them a lesson, that’s abuse.”
In a statement responding to her allegations, Uspiritus said, “Many of the details provided by Ms. Frank’s account of events do not align with our records, which includes videotapes, emails, interviews with staff, and investigatory reports.” The organization did not specify which details it disputed.
‘Nonstop’ verbal abuse
For nine months, Janeway said, her son was verbally and emotionally abused and antagonized by staff, and at times she heard it over the phone, according to the lawsuit.
“Anytime I would talk to Anthony on the phone and he would try to tell me something that they didn’t really want to be told, they would talk over him. They were trying to redirect what he was saying,” she said. “It was nonstop.”
She wanted to pull him out, she said, but at the time wasn’t able to treat his health conditions at home. “I was backed into an impossible corner, so I had to keep my trust in them,” she said.
In her suit, Janeway alleges she heard her son was being told to “shut up” during a phone call in August 2021 when he tried to tell her how he was being treated by Miss Debbie, which prompted her to email a social worker.
In an email reviewed by NBC News from Aug. 30, 2021, Janeway asked for an update on “the incident with staff,” calling it a “pressing issue” and noting that she hadn’t had contact with her son since then.
A facility director wrote back telling Janeway, “As I stated when I spoke to you on the phone, this concern has been passed on to our internal fact finding process to be looked into. As of today, that process has not been fully completed yet. I will ensure one of us lets you know when it has. I do want to remind you that we will not be able to tell you what follow up will occur with the employee. That information is protected.” But she said the facility would let Janeway know when the process had been completed.
In her suit, Janeway said, during her son’s stay at Brooklawn she was not able to see him for two months while it was on Covid lockdown, and it was difficult to reach him at times because of phone and internet outages at the facility.
In an email reviewed by NBC News from Aug. 30, 2021, she expressed frustration to a Brooklawn social worker that she was unable to make phone calls to her son, to which the employee replied, “I am not an IT specialist, so there is no way of me knowing that when the internet went out, the phone did, as well. I am sure they are working to get something in place as we are now aware of what happens when the internet goes out.”
After the alleged choking in October, Anthony stayed at Brooklawn for another six months while he waited for a bed at another facility, she said.
He was discharged home in March, four months before Ja’Ceon’s death.
But Anthony’s behavior was very different than before he went to Brooklawn, she said. He became “very distant, very quiet, very skittish like you were going to hurt him,” she said.
“I trusted a broken system that is supposed to help my son, not hurt my son, and it failed him,” she said.
The experience changed her, as well, she said.
“I feel absolute regret and it eats me alive everyday.” she said “Every day after that, I have wished that I just brought the whole entire police force with me. I wish that I didn’t listen. I wish I had that officer so somebody could have walked out of there in handcuffs and not been able to hurt anybody else. I wish I spoke up and not trusted them. That way, my son wouldn’t possibly be lingering with the trauma of what they did to him.”
Janeway is now calling for the facility to be shut down immediately.
Her lawsuit alleges negligence and negligent hiring, training, supervision and retention against the facility.
"This lawsuit was filed on behalf of another child victim that was choked and abused at the Brooklawn facility," Paul Croley, a lawyer who filed the suit, said in a written statement. Croley also has filed a suit alleging wrongful death, negligence and negligent hiring, training, supervision and retention on behalf of Ja’Ceon’s estate.
"Brooklawn and its parent companies knew of a terrible and dangerous problem. They shamefully ignored it. The consequences are horrific," Croley said in the statement. "Our investigation and pursuit will continue until all of the these hurt children see justice and this never happens again,"
Following Ja’Ceon’s death, the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services said it has taken “additional action” against Uspiritus.
“Following investigations of Brooklawn by the cabinet’s Office of Inspector General and the Department for Community Based Services, cabinet representatives shared with Uspiritus leadership on Nov. 2 a list of findings, including the most serious, categorized as immediate jeopardy, requiring corrective action in Brooklawn’s Psychiatric Residential Treatment Facilities,” Susan Dunlap, a spokesperson for the agency, said in a statement.
Dunlap said that a final version of the findings is still awaiting approval by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services quality assurance team, and that Uspiritus will have 10 days after receiving it to submit a plan of correction.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services did not return requests for comment.
Janeway said she is filled with regret for Ja’Ceon and wants his family to know “she sees them and their pain.”
“I’m sorry for what happened to you,” she said. “That could have very easily been my son.”
“Those fears are still there, that regret and that hurt and knowing that, just maybe, I could have saved a child’s life. But I was scared to say anything because I trusted them and that makes me mad, so mad.”