The Kentucky agency charged with overseeing state youth centers said it has taken new action against the nonprofit organization that operates a Louisville foster care facility where a 7-year-old boy suffocated to death in July.
The action comes days after an NBC News investigation into Brooklawn, which is owned and operated by Uspiritus, revealed allegations of wrongdoing and abuse several years before the death of Ja’Ceon Terry.
The Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services took “additional action” against Uspiritus on Wednesday, Susan Dunlap, a spokesperson for the agency, said in a statement.
“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.”
Dunlap did not elaborate on the findings. She said Brooklawn has 10 days from the date of the action to respond and that “the cabinet intends to invoke the strongest penalties possible.”
Uspiritus did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“Uspiritus has failed the most vulnerable, a child. The cabinet will not tolerate placing children anywhere where their safety and well-being are not prioritized,” Eric Friedlander, secretary of the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services, said in a statement following the additional action.
Ja’Ceon was a ward of the state and had been placed at Brooklawn, which cares for children with mental and behavioral needs, when he died of “positional asphyxia.” The Jefferson County Coroner’s Office 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.
The facility said it “dismissed” the two employees who it says were involved immediately after the incident and the Kentucky Cabinet of Health and Family Services suspended new foster care placements at Brooklawn. Dunlap said the suspension remains.
Police and state officials say they are still investigating Ja’Ceon’s death, and no charges have been filed.
Brooklawn has remained in operation, and it said that as of Oct. 20, 32 children who are in state custody remained in its care.
According to the NBC News investigation, incident reports filed with the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services from 2014 to 2022, a lawsuit against the facility and a former employee who says she was intimidated into quitting after she reported abuse all found allegations of abuse. Among the violations “confirmed” by state investigators from the agency were improper use of restraints and aggression by staff members.
“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,” Uspiritus, which also operates Brooklawn’s sister facility, Bellewood, said in a statement following the boy’s death.
Rebekah Frank, a former Brooklawn employee who worked at the facility in 2018, said that she witnessed dozens of interactions in which children as young as 8 screamed that they were in pain as staffers pinned their faces against the wall, restraints that were in violation of training.
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 organizations did not specify which details it disputed.
Another employee, Nicole Richardson, alleged in a wrongful termination lawsuit filed in a Kentucky court in 2020 that she was fired Jan. 30, 2019, for having reported abuse.
According to an affidavit filed with the court, she said she witnessed staff members “waterboard” children with a cooler, drag a “naked juvenile on the floor” and threaten to “hit a child with a book.”
Uspiritus said it was “unable to comment” on the wrongful termination lawsuit, which continues.
Following the NBC News investigation, several Kentucky lawmakers said they will be doing their own legislative probe into the incident and the facility.
“I don’t care what the kid did and it doesn’t matter how the kids act out, that’s an unnecessary and an improper use or level of force for a child of 7 years old,” Kentucky state Sen. Whitney Westerfield said. “We’re already dealing with children who are struggling with any number of issues, none of which are their own fault. So you’re compounding that with the kind of conduct that’s reserved for penal colonies and custodial facilities for adults and prisons, which I think is just unconscionable.”
Westerfield, who sits on the state Legislature’s child welfare advisory committee, said he will be requesting committee time to examine the incident and will ask for a full report from the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services once the legislative session returns.
Kentucky House Speaker Pro Tem David Meade said in a statement that “the Kentucky General Assembly is already examining the programs and work of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services and we have inquired specifically about this case and other instances of reports from this facility.”
He added that “the death of an otherwise healthy seven-year old child is made worse by the fact it took place while he was under the care of a system created to protect him."
“Clearly there was a grave failure, the question is how systemic that failure is and what the repercussions will be.”