The Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice announced on Wednesday that the Lincoln Village Juvenile Detention Center—where 16-year-old Gynnya McMillen was found dead in her cell on Jan. 11, 2016, after four staff members pinned her down with an Aikido martial arts restraint hold—will close in mid-June.
CBS News reports that the department attributes the closure to statewide efforts to “consolidate operations and focus more resources on community-based interventions that better protect public safety.”
Lincoln Village is the third juvenile detention facility in Kentucky to close since 2014.
In a statement following Gynnya’s death, Stacy Floden, spokesperson for Lincoln Village, placed blame for the use of excessive force squarely on the 16-year-old girl.
The staff performed an Aikido restraint hold to safely conduct a pat-down search and remove the youth’s hoodie. The purpose of having multiple staff involved in a controlled restraint is to ensure the safety of the youth and staff.
[McMillen’s] repeated refusal to cooperate with staff and remove her outer garment prompted the restraint.
As previously reported by The Root, Bob Hayter, who had been commissioner of the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice since 2014, was fired after an investigation found that Hayter failed to notify his superiors that Reginald Windham, a supervisor at the detention center, had been suspended for failing to conduct bed checks that might have saved Gynnya’s life.
According to protocol, Windham was supposed to check on Gynnya every 15 minutes, but he failed to do so. The 10-year veteran also falsified records claiming that he had conducted the checks.
“Before news accounts ... the Justice Cabinet was not made aware that the employee’s work record included previous disciplinary actions,” the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet said in a statement last year. “While these disciplinary actions were not connected to the death, they reveal a pattern of unacceptable behavior for someone who supervises youth.”
Ron Hillerich, the attorney for Gynnya’s family, said that Windham’s file is “very, very troubling.”
“Not only did he not monitor her, but he said he did,” Hillerich said. “I’ll be the first to admit that I’m always good for a second chance, but we have a gentleman here who’s been given four and five second chances before.”
Michelle McMillen, Gynnya’s mother, filed a federal wrongful death lawsuit against multiple defendants last year—including Windham—claiming use of excessive force and negligence. The lawsuit claims that Windham stood outside Gynnya’s cell for approximately 18 seconds and did nothing as he watched “her last gasps and dying breaths and final uncontrollable movements and seizure.”
Windham and Lincoln Village employee Victor Holt were both fired and indicted on charges of official misconduct related to Gynnya’s death. Both men pleaded not guilty and are currently awaiting trial, the Kentucky Center of Investigative Reporting reports.
Click here to read the full lawsuit.
Gynnya McMillen Should Never Have Been Taken to Lincoln Village Juvenile Detention Center
“There is a much larger story here, about each of the points in the process where the system failed this child,” Liz Ryan, president and CEO of the Youth First Initiative, told Rewire in 2016. “For instance, why was she detained and arrested in the first place?”
Jan. 10, 2016, at approximately 2 a.m., Michelle McMillen, called 911 to report that her daughter, Gynnya McMillen, had assaulted her. In the 911 call, McMillen can be heard screaming and cursing at Gynnya, then telling authorities to come get her. Gynnya can be heard crying in the background.
McMillen then tells the dispatcher that Gynnya had hit her several times.
“No, I didn’t,” Gynnya can be heard wailing in the background.
“Yes, you did,” her mother responds angrily. “Yes, you did.”
McMillen then tells the dispatcher that she had her male friend hold Gynnya down—Gynnya can still be heard crying and screaming in the background.
“My friend had to hold her all the way down ... he been holding her down for the last five minutes,” Gynnya’s mother says to the dispatcher.
“I told him to get on up,” she continues. “He been wrestling with her for about five or 10 minutes.”
Gynnya had been living at Maryhurst—a Kentucky children’s home for children in crisis who have been removed from their homes because of abuse and/or neglect—for six months prior to her death. The alleged altercation between mother and child happened during a weekend visit at the mother’s apartment.
Shelbyville, Ky., police officers located Gynnya walking around her mother’s apartment complex and arrested her. McMillen allegedly had minor injuries, but neither mother nor daughter would discuss the incident with authorities.
Police officers on the scene called a court-designated employee who processes complaints against juveniles. The worker contacted District Judge Donna Dutton, who recommended that Gynnya be sent to Lincoln Village, almost 70 miles away, to await a court appearance.
“Gynnya did not have to be taken to Lincoln Village,” Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Secretary John Tilley said. “That was not the only option—she was in the custody of another cabinet and, as you know, was in a private facility and out on a weekend visit, and she should have been returned to [Maryhurst], but there was a breakdown in communication between workers on call. I can’t speak to that.”
28-Hour Timeline of Gynnya McMillen’s Death
Jan. 10, 2016
6:07 a.m.: Lincoln Village Juvenile Detention Center staff restrain 16-year-old Gynnya McMillen with the Aikido martial arts hold after she declines to remove her hooded sweatshirt for her booking photo and body search. Lincoln Village staff hold Gynnya down for approximately 4 minutes and 15 seconds, Rewire reports.
The incident took place out of view of the one functioning surveillance camera in the room; the camera that would have recorded the incident had allegedly been reported broken one week prior to the incident.
In an email to CBS News, Mike Wynn, the public information officer for the Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, described what could be seen from the functioning camera:
The youth was lowered to the floor face down, one arm remained raised with the elbow straight as part of the restraint.
Her hand and wrist are visible for a few moments, but then move below the counter. After a few moments, the hand and wrist are briefly visible again before they move back below the counter.
A third employee held her feet to prevent the youth from kicking. A fourth female staff member performed a pat-down style search. Once the search was complete, the youth was raised and escorted to the intake holding room.
Two employees, continuing to hold McMillen’s arms above her head then brought the teen to a cell.
6:22 a.m. to 3:44 p.m.: Gynnya “is left in the isolation cell 423 on a metal bed frame without a mattress pad or blanket while she balled herself up in her sweatshirt to stay warm.”
During this time, Lincoln Village staffers offer Gynnya food. She refuses breakfast and an afternoon snack but accepts a bottle of water.
3:44 p.m.: Gynnya is allowed out of her cell, during which time she is formally processed and allowed to shower.
4:42 p.m.: Gynnya is given two bottles of water and eats a meal at the staff desk.
5:19 p.m.: Gynnya is escorted back to her cell, and a mattress is provided for her.
9:13 p.m.: A Lincoln Village staffer opens the door and has a conversation with Gynnya. This is believed to be the last time anyone speaks with her.
11:39 p.m.: Windham hears Gynnya coughing and goes to check on her. He stands outside her cell for approximately 18 seconds, looking through a narrow slit in the door, then turns and walks away. This is the last time that Gynnya is seen moving.
Gynnya died in her sleep of heart arrhythmia, according to the Hardin County Coroner’s Office. After multiple autopsies—and consultation with the Mayo Clinic—it was determined that Gynnya had a condition called inherited long QT syndrome, which can cause irregular heart rhythms.
Gynnya died between 11:39 p.m. and 11:44 p.m., according to Kentucky’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and the Mayo Clinic.
Jan. 11, 2016
6:29 a.m.: Lincoln Village staffer opens the steel door of Gynnya’s cell, yells for her to wake up and holds up a breakfast tray; Gynnya neither moves nor replies.
8:30 a.m.: Lincoln Village staffer opens the steel door and yells to Gynnya that her breakfast is there; Gynnya neither moves nor replies.
9:36 a.m.: Victor Holt pokes Gynnya’s body with a water bottle and attempts to shake her body. Holt returns three minutes later to close the door. Holt notes in the center’s log: “Resident was told to get up and change out for court and ignored staff.”
Between 8:30 a.m. and 9:55 a.m., Michelle McMillen calls to speak to Gynnya. A Lincoln Village staffer goes to Gynnya’s cell and asks her if she wants to accept her mother’s call. Gynnya neither moves nor replies. Gynnya’s sister, LaChe Simms, said that their mother tried to call at least four times and the calls kept disconnecting, CBS News reports. When McMillen finally got through, she was told that Gynnya was nonresponsive.
9:55 a.m.: A deputy sheriff arrives to transport Gynnya to her court hearing. A Lincoln Village youth worker enters her cell and finds her nonresponsive and cold to the touch.
10:03 a.m.: Lincoln Village staffer calls 911 and tells the dispatcher that Gynnya is cold and stiff and has no vital signs.
10:07 a.m.: A Lincoln Village nurse finally begins CPR with assistance from a 911 dispatcher.
10:15 a.m.: An EMS supervisor declares Gynnya McMillen dead.
11:33 a.m.: Gynnya’s body is in transit to the Hardin County Coroner’s Office.
A state investigation found that six employees failed to do regular bed checks and falsified departmental logs; three of those employees were fired, including Reginald Windham, WDRB.com reports.
Windham told the court that “so many things could have been done that could have prevented this from happening.”
Lisa Lamb, Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet spokesperson, blamed Lincoln Village’s negligence on Gynnya’s trauma.
“The teen’s silence was consistent with her lack of communication with staff from the time she arrived,” Lamb said.
It is, without a doubt, the height of negligence and recklessness not to check on a nonresponsive teen—one who is not eating—to make sure that everything is okay.
“It is not normal, not acceptable, for a kid to be not eating, not engaging, not responsive, and that should trigger alarms,” Michele Deitch, an attorney and juvenile-justice expert who lectures at the University of Texas at Austin, said in an interview with CBS News. “It seems like there were so many missed opportunities and missed signals that something wasn’t right here.”
There were too many things that just weren’t right, including these:
- Gynnya McMillen was removed from her home because she experienced trauma.
- Shelbyville police officers arrested her in the midst of more trauma—after being held down by a grown man while her mother screamed and cursed at her.
- Upon her arrival at a detention center 70 miles away from her home, male staffers asked Gynnya to remove her hoodie, her armor. She was placed in an aggressive martial arts hold and violently taken to a cold cell—to lie on a bed with no mattress.
- We cannot see the extent of this martial arts hold because the surveillance camera that covers the area where Gynnya was restrained conveniently happens to be broken.
- During her brief time at Lincoln Village, Gynnya was clearly traumatized; she refused food and did not want to speak.
“You could just name off a lot of different factors that could contribute to the beginning stages of cardiac arrest,” Donna Stewart, a pathologist in the state Medical Examiner’s Office, said.
“Emotional stress, physical stress, just any kind of alteration in the physiology where the ability of our body to function as it does [is compromised] can certainly increase the risk of sudden death in any of us,” Stewart added.
According to “Gender Injustice: System-Level Juvenile Justice Reforms for Girls,” black girls are 20 percent more likely to be detained than white girls and three times as likely as white girls to be referred to court.
When one reads the data, it becomes evident that Gynnya McMillen—a 16-year-old black girl arrested and referred to court—had a target on her back.
- 45 percent of girls in juvenile detention centers have experienced five or more adverse childhood experiences.
- 31 percent of them have experienced sexual abuse.
- 39 percent of them have experienced emotional abuse.
- 41 percent of them have experienced physical abuse.
- 84 percent of them have experienced family violence.
I do not know why Gynnya was removed from her home. Black children are disproportionately taken from their families and thrown into the child welfare system, even when they have the same problems and characteristics as white children, Dorothy Roberts wrote in “Race and Class in the Child Welfare System.”
Social, economical, racial and institutional oppression are rarely considered factors, and black families are far less likely to be offered in-home support. Black mothers are more frequently treated as unfit, dangerous and irredeemable; black children are more frequently placed into foster care; and the child welfare system has become increasingly punitive, Roberts notes, as more and more black and Latino children become case numbers.
Still, there are times when it is in a child’s best interest to be removed from a toxic home, and it is clear in the 911 call that Gynnya was not safe—emotionally, psychologically or physically. The pain and fear were evident in her voice, and the Lincoln Village Juvenile Detention Center staff should have heard it in her silence.
Many people and institutions slowly killed Gynnya McMillen; it was only her death that came quickly.
Time has moved on, and not as many people are talking about the heart-wrenching and completely avoidable death of 16-year-old Gynnya McMillen.
Still, the staff at Maryhurst, the children’s home where Gynnya was staying—and where she should have been returned instead of being hauled to Lincoln Village—remembers.
“The Maryhurst family mourns the loss of such a beautiful young girl who had such a loving spirit,” Judy Lambeth, Maryhurst’s president and CEO, said in January on the one-year anniversary of Gynnya’s death. “We will grieve her passing because we saw such great hope and potential in her life.
“If they’d brought her back to Maryhurst, at least she would have died in a place where she knew she was loved,” Lambeth continued. “She loved the staff, and the staff loved her.”
If Gynnya McMillen had been taken back to Maryhurst, she most likely wouldn’t have died—at least not that day. We cannot forget that.
We also can’t forget that there are more Gynnyas out there, there are more Breshas—and there are more juvenile detention centers that don’t care about any of them. There are more homes where they are not safe.
Too many black girls have been broken and left for dead. If there is anything to be learned from Gynnya’s death, let it be that we need to be intentional about seeking out those black girls, creating space for them and loving them whole—not destroying them piece by piece. We need to protect them, not harm them or leave them vulnerable to a predatory state.
Gynnya McMillen should be alive. As I think about her, cold and alone on a hard bed, unable to speak the unspeakable, I can’t help wondering how many times a black girl has to scream on the inside before we recognize the sound.