‘Everybody knew about it’: Internal documents expose warnings at youth detention facility

Almost one year after our first Troubleshooter’s investigations, two nurses who worked at the Adair County Juvenile Detention Center are still sounding the alar
Updated: Sep. 19, 2023 at 6:00 PM EDT
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ADAIR COUNTY, Ky. (WAVE) - From a corrections officer admitting to kissing an underage girl in one state facility, to kids punished with pepper spray in another. Those are some of the incidents described in internal reports from Kentucky’s Department of Juvenile Justice obtained through open record requests.

“It’s truly been heart-wrenching and disgusting,” Joanne Alvarado, a former Adair County Juvenile Detention Center nurse said.

Joanne Alvarado, a former nurse at the Adair County Juvenile Detention Center.
Joanne Alvarado, a former nurse at the Adair County Juvenile Detention Center.(Source: Jeff Knight, WAVE News)

“What I saw at Adair County was child abuse,” Beth Johnson said. “There is no doubt.”

Johnson was Alvarado’s colleague at Adair. According to the women’s letters of resignation, they both left their positions because of the conditions at the facility.

Almost one year after our first Troubleshooter’s investigations, Alvarado and Johnson are still sounding the alarm. WAVE News Troubleshooters met up with the women at the Adair County Courthouse as they showed up to support a teenage girl who they say became a victim of the state’s care. The hearing was pertaining to her criminal case.

The teen’s court date came as Troubleshooters obtained new investigative records from the Campbell County Detention Center about Neil Moorman, a corrections officer who was fired after being accused of having relationships with at least one teen inmate, documents state.

Beth Johnson, a former nurse at the Adair County Juvenile Detention Center.
Beth Johnson, a former nurse at the Adair County Juvenile Detention Center.(Source: Jeff Knight, WAVE News)

The same investigative records requested through The Department of Juvenile Justice include interviews of teens talking about love letters from Moorman and witnessing him kissing and groping detained, teenage girls.

Many of the interviews mention the “hygiene” room as the place where cameras couldn’t see. On page 40, Moorman himself admits to kissing one of the girls though he said it was “only” three times.

“I was sick when I saw what happened at Campbell County,” Johnson said.

The state records describe several employees being suspicious of Moorman ever since he graduated from the training academy in April.

In an email, the state’s spokesperson said the Department of Juvenile Justice didn’t know about the sexual allegations until May 31 - the same day they said the assistant superintendent made the decision to contact Kentucky State Police.

But in the internal investigative documents, that same assistant superintendent tells investigators she’d been on medical leave from May 16th through May 30th. When she got back, she told investigators she asked why Moorman was still there.

During interviews included in the request, several other employees also said they spoke to then-superintendent Kraig McWhorter about Moorman, but that the suspicions “fell on deaf ears.”

One employee said McWhorter instructed her to write a “grievance” about Moorman instead of an incident report which is recorded and tracked. She told investigators this “confused her and she thought it should go on another form.”

The discrepancies about who knew what when doesn’t surprise Johnson. She said her former boss at the Adair facility, Tonya Burton, would write up reports with another spin. It’s something which was also described in a lawsuit against the Department of Juvenile Justice.

“Tonya Burton said to me after I, I saw something occur and heard from witnesses, ‘That’s not the way I heard it,’” Johnson recalled.

The lawsuit claims the problems were covered up.

“I know there’s been cover-ups,” Johnson said.

The Adair County Juvenile Detention Center in Columbia, Ky.
The Adair County Juvenile Detention Center in Columbia, Ky.(Source: Jeff Knight, WAVE News)

DJJ records obtained about the Adair facility by the Lexington Herald-Leader describe kids being pepper-sprayed by staff as a form of punishment. In one incident the Herald-Leader described, the child was not allowed to wash the pepper spray off for 30 minutes.

“You did an investigation, you found everything that we said, but instead of changing things, you gave promotions, titles and weapons to the same people that were misusing them,” Alvarado said.

Alvarado was talking about Governor Andy Beshear who in December issued pepper spray to juvenile detention officers after violent riots resulted in one teen girl being raped and an employee beaten so badly, he spent days in ICU.

“It is a challenge keeping order when they understand you don’t have defensive weaponry,” Beshear said during the press conference.

Alvarado believes not every employee should have been armed with pepper spray or promoted like the now-Captain Anthony Vickery.

In the lawsuit against the DJJ, Alvarado claims Vickery “violently twisted” a girl’s arm through the door slot. The child had been “begging for help” the lawsuit says. But Alvarado claimed Vickery’s description of what happened was a “work of fiction.”

“If you want change, you have to fix the problem,” Alvarado said. “You have to hold people accountable.”

That accountability. She believes, could have come from Captain Vickery’s boss, Tonya Burton.

Burton was at the same hearing as the nurses the day of their interview but refused to answer any questions about the Adair facility. She got in her car and left without providing a statement. That was no surprise to Johnson and Alvarado.

“It’s very frustrating, disheartening and it’s wrong,” Alvarado said. “I mean, they are kids.”

They are both still begging for someone to step in like the Attorney General’s Office, the FBI or the U.S. Department of Justice who is aware of the documented problems. The DOJ told us they can’t confirm or deny any investigation, but a number of Troubleshooter whistleblowers, including Johnson and Alvarado, have not been contacted by the DOJ.

“The problem with speaking truth to power is that when you’re finished with the whole thing, you’re left with the truth and they’re still left with the power,” Johnson said.

In a previous investigation, Troubleshooters spoke to Neil Moorman over the phone. He declined to make a comment but did say he was aware of the investigation.

McWhorter did not return messages to his social media accounts. He was fired in July according to his termination letter obtained by WAVE Troubleshooters through another open records request.

“You demonstrated a lack of good behavior and unsatisfactory performance of duties by falsifying a youth release form,” the letter states. The letter also indicates he violated policy by “showing up at CRJDC after consuming alcohol.”

Drinking on the job was something the supporting documents to the termination indicated happened more than once. “Director Kazee stated that he has had this conversation with you in the past and Executive Director James Sweatt had a conversation with you prior to this incident,” the letter said about the alcohol.

There were no other documents or reprimands related specifically to those incidents.

McWhorter was reprimanded for a use of force incident in 2019 in which a youth claimed he’d been struck by McWhorter. McWhorter received a letter of reprimand but was later promoted, according to his personnel file obtained by WAVE Troubleshooters.

The Kentucky State Police investigation into Moorman is still on going, though they would not comment further. They did charge a number of teens after the riot at the Adair facility.

The Legislative Oversight and Investigations Committee opened their own investigation into the numerous allegations across the department, and a group of legislators have also called for sweeping changes, including the resignation of the DJJ’s Commissioner, Vicki Reed. Reed and her boss, the secretary of the state’s Justice Cabinet, Kerry Harvey have been kept by Beshear in their roles.

The Department of Juvenile Justice has undergone several changes at Beshear’s request, such as the separation of teens by type of crime, and the creation of three high felony centers. The state also hired a Director of Security to focus on safety measures at the outdated and outfitted facilities.

The legislature also approved funds to raise the salaries of youth detention employees to combat what Harvey has said is the biggest problem, a lack of staff. Salaries now begin at $50,000.

As part of the changes, Beshear also ordered the separation of all female and male detainees. The Campbell County facility was to house all of the girls. It was the same facility Moorman was assigned to.

The painful irony of the situation was apparent to even the detainees themselves. In the investigative documents acquired through open records requests, one teen girl made her anger clear.

“Everybody knew about it,” she told investigators of the allegations against Moorman. “Mr. Kriag” (McWhorter) knew about it, and other staff knew about it and were keeping it “hush-hush” because he did not want to lose another staff,” she said. She added the Assistant Superintendent at the time knew as well.

The investigator continued describing her statement. “(The teen) wanted to add it is the staff’s job to keep them safe,” the investigator wrote. “She stated the reason all females were moved to Campbell RJDC from other facilities was because they were being sexually assaulted, and it is still occurring,” the documents state.

Troubleshooters have asked the DJJ about the discrepancies in dates of when the staff knew about the allegations against Moorman, and if they have made any reports to law enforcement.

In a statement in response to this story the Justice Cabinet acknowledged the former superintendent did not report the concerns from employees adequately.

“We strongly encourage employees to report any misconduct to management and/or the Internal Investigations Branch (IIB) and document it appropriately and timely,” the Communications Director, Morgan Hall said. “It appears some employees had verbally notified the former superintendent of their general concerns although they had not witnessed any overt misconduct. However, it does not appear any employees notified IIB or documented their general concerns in writing prior to May 31. The former superintendent did not report those verbal concerns to detention center division leadership or take further action. He was demoted to assistant superintendent on May 24, relieved of duty on July 5 and officially terminated August 11.”

Hall added that the assistant superintendent took action immediately after reviewing security video involving Neil Moorman. Lastly, Hall said Anthony Vickery, the man accused in a lawsuit of twisting a girl’s arm, was demoted to lieutenant August 11.