Class action complaint accuses Tennessee Department of Children’s Services of abusing disabled kids

Published 1:07 pm Friday, June 28, 2024

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

By Anita Wadhwani

Tennessee Lookout

The Department of Children’s Services is illegally and unconstitutionally warehousing kids with disabilities in prison-like facilities, where they are pepper-sprayed, beaten and denied access to education and healthcare, a new class action complaint alleges.

Email newsletter signup

In the sweeping 114-page legal complaint filed Wednesday in a Nashville federal court, page after page details “horrific experiences of youths trapped in (DCS) custody.” A few of them:

• a 17-year-old boy beaten more than 31 times

• a 15-year-old girl shackled, dragged across the floor and placed in a solitary cell, where she was later pepper sprayed while naked.

•  a single Middle Tennessee juvenile detention facility with 48 instances of pepper sprayings each month.

•  kids left in solitary 23 hours a day, sleeping on bare bed frames in bug-infested cells with no education or mental health care provided.

•  multiple DCS facilities where “bounties” are used to induce kids to attack other kids, singling out those who filed grievances against staff or conditions. Ramen noodles were a popular reward for kids who beat other kids, the lawsuit noted.

“We have spent the last two years doing everything in our power to effect change to these systems, without success,” said Jack Derryberry, legal director of Disability Rights Tennessee, which is leading the legal challenge

“At this point, we have no choice but to ask the courts to step in to protect those who cannot protect themselves,” he said.

The complaint, which also names DCS Commissioner Margie Quin, and the Tennessee Department of Education and its commissioner, Lizzette Reynolds, seeks class status to represent what attorneys estimate could be more than 1,000 Tennessee youth with disabilities who have been in  state custody via the juvenile justice system.

It claims the state has violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fourteenth Amendment, which protects against excessive force, unjust confinement and failure to provide medical care, and the Eighth Amendment, which guards against cruel and unusual punishment.

Amy Lannom Wilhite, a spokesperson for Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti, responded on behalf of DCS and said the agency was aware of the lawsuit but did not offer comment.

The lawsuit comes after years of turmoil and chaos for children in the custody of DCS, which has struggled to find safe and adequate places for Tennessee children.

Children have been left to sleep on state office building floors and linger in hospital rooms months past their discharge dates. Recently, DCS announced it intends to place kids in group homes that have served adults with severe disabilities for over a decade — a move that has raised alarms among loved ones of adults facing potential dislocation to make way for kids. They have accused state officials of pitting one vulnerable population against another.

Children come into DCS custody either due to allegations of neglect or abuse in their own homes, or after they have had brushes with the law, failed to attend school or other infractions that land them in the juvenile court systems.

It is children with disabilities who end up in DCS custody through the juvenile courts that the lawsuit is seeking to protect.

There are roughly 600 to 650 youth in DCS juvenile justice custody at any one time — 1,200-1,400 in total per year; an estimated 65% to 85% live with a disability, based on national data, said Derryberry.

Some of these children are routinely denied legally mandated accommodations and receive little or no mental health or other healthcare services — sometimes as a form of discipline, the lawsuit claims. Kids have been denied psychiatric medication as punishment for perceived infractions and medical treatment for self-inflicted injuries, it says.

Kids in juvenile facilities are also denied an adequate education mandated by law, the lawsuit says.

Youth Law Center and the law firm of Sanford Heisler Sharp, represented in this case by former federal judge Kevin Sharp, along with Disability Rights Tennessee have filed the suit, seeking class action status.