Evaluators find juvenile center is run
Teenage prisoner Kyle Kirchner was rushed to the
hospital in October after an attack by fellow inmates at the Woodland
Hills Youth Development Center in Nashville left him bloodied and with
two teeth protruding through his lower lip.
Days later, the attackers used a fire drill to slip
out of a secure area in an effort to get at Kirchner again, his parents
said. The assailants were on the other side of a locked door as
Kirchner, 17, placed a panicked phone call to his parents pleading for
His parents called security at the Department of
Children's Services-run the facility, and security staff were sent to
thwart the attack.
But the episode left Kirchner's parents, Dawn and
Jerry Mitchell, questioning whether DCS is capable of protecting the
children in its custody.
"There was a truly serious lapse in security," Dawn
The Nashville family is not alone in its concerns
about Woodland Hills, one of five juvenile detention facilities in
Tennessee that house some of the state's most dangerous young offenders.
DCS officials refused to release reports detailing the
Oct. 29 attack on Kirchner. But two months earlier, a state oversight
agency found many problems during an August visit to Woodland Hills,
ranging from poorly trained staff and gang issues to a lack of security
and a generally chaotic atmosphere.
The draft report, compiled by the Tennessee Commission
on Children and Youth, paints a picture of a poorly supervised facility
where apathetic and untrained staff members impose little order and at
times interact unprofessionally with kids. The oversight group also
cited concerns that vulnerable kids were "not consistently adequately
protected from more aggressive youth."
"There are substantial concerns about safety and
security issues at WHYDC," the draft report states. "Insufficient
staffing, poor staffing patterns, poor supervision and inadequate staff
training contributed to inadequate programming and safety conditions for
DCS officials have strongly disagreed with some of the
findings in the report. Some of the issues raised have been remedied,
while others are being addressed, DCS officials said.
"The part we most take issue with are these
observations that it is chaotic and unsafe," DCS spokesman Rob Johnson
said. "You have to remember, these aren't kindergartners. These are
adolescents, and they can be impulsive."
DCS officials also disagree with assertions that
Woodland Hills staff are ill prepared to perform their difficult jobs.
"We're always looking to improve the training, but we
think we have a good training program," Johnson said. He noted that
staff spend 160 hours training before being allowed to work with kids
and an additional 40 hours a year in continuing training.
In 2004, Metro police responded to Woodland Hills in
riot gear after more than a dozen youth, some armed with broom handles,
made an escape attempt that left 16 staff members injured.
After the attack on Kirchner, Jerry Mitchell said he
demanded that DCS officials move his stepson elsewhere because he felt
Woodland Hills staff were not in control.
"I said, 'You all aren't running the facility,' "
Jerry Mitchell said. " 'It's the kids that are running this facility.' "
Kirchner, who had a history of running away from other
facilities and had been in trouble for a drug addiction and for stealing
and wrecking his parents' car, was allowed to move to a less-secure
facility. He has since been released from state custody.
DCS moved the two kids suspected in his assault to a
youth development center in East Tennessee. An internal investigation of
the incident is being made.
Some of the problems alleged by Kirchner's family also
were perceived by the oversight agency during its August visit.
"There appeared to be, and reports verified, little
order in the facility, almost chaos, in terms of appropriate structure
regarding student dress, language/cursing, yelling, fighting (sometimes
with slow response time from staff), student movement, etc," the report
The oversight group also found significant gang
problems at Woodland Hills.
"There is no program to deal with gang activity, but
there were serious concerns about the level of gang activity reported
and observed, including open gang clothing and signage, extortion, level
of fighting, etc., and concerns that serious disruptions in the facility
are possible," the report states.
In recent months, DCS has beefed up its treatment
staff at Woodland Hills, department officials said. A new security
manager was assigned to Woodland Hills, and the number in the facility
has been reduced from 144 to about 120 while the staffing level has
remained the same, Johnson said.
"But for the most part, we think that the environment
out there is as safe as it is in any public school," the DCS spokesman
Some observers familiar with DCS and Woodland Hills
scoffed at the comparison.
"The kids in Woodland Hills have all shown by their
behavior that they can't operate successfully in the community," said
Metro Juvenile Court Judge Betty Adams Green. " They would not be there
if that were the case. I think they've staffed it like a high school.
Maybe that's the problem."
Green said the report is reflective of a juvenile
justice system that is suffering from years of neglect.
"I'm not surprised at all by any of these findings,"
the judge said.
DCS has been accused in recent years of mismanaging
its foster-care system and of mishandling cases of abused or neglected
kids, some of which resulted in serious injuries and deaths.
Earlier this year, the Tennessean reported that kids
in DCS custody had been allowed to escape or walk away from facilities
thousands of times during the past five years.
Some judges and state legislators mounted an effort to
create a separate juvenile justice system, apart from DCS. In response,
DCS Commissioner Viola Miller hired former Juvenile Court Judge Steve
Hornsby to reform and oversee juvenile justice.
In an interview, Hornsby said he didn't like what he
saw in the "loosey-goosey" atmosphere at Woodland Hills when he visited
in November and told staff that order needed to be restored.
One of the changes Hornsby has made is to begin
tracking violent and other serious incidents in comprehensive reports at
all five youth development centers across the state, something that had
not been done previously.
He vowed that the department's internal affairs
investigators would find out what happened in the Kirchner incident.
"I've got tremendous confidence in their ability to
ferret out the truth and find out what happened," he said. "And if there
were policy violations, there will be discipline. There's no question
Officials with the Commission on Children and Youth,
which issued the report, said they have noted recent improvements at
Woodland Hills but acknowledged that some of the problems, particularly
those involving quality of staff, defy quick remedies.
"It is a large facility," said Linda O'Neal, executive
director of the Commission on Children and Youth. "It has a lot of staff
who are undereducated, underpaid and under-trained for the things they
need to do. And that's a problem throughout much of state government. We
get what we pay for."
O'Neal noted that Woodland Hills has improved since
the findings. After a Tennessean reporter requested a copy of the draft
report, the Commission on Children and Youth went back to the center
briefly and found what they described as a less chaotic facility.
"In part, some of this was a wake-up call, and the
good news is they're responding."
2 January 2006