A boy was choked and verbally abused at Kentucky facility where 7-year-old was killed, lawsuit says

Janeway said she never received any information regarding the investigation, according to the suit. By the end of October 2021, she said, she gave up trying to find out the results. 

“After a while, I just stopped asking because I knew nobody was listening and I knew it wasn’t getting anywhere. I was sick and tired of wasting my breath and I just kind of held on to this hope that they did what they were supposed to do.”

She still does not know who caused the marks on her son’s skin, according to the lawsuit. 

Previous allegations of abuse

Last month, an NBC News investigation into Brooklawn detailed allegations of wrongdoing and abuse over several years leading up to the July 17 death of Ja’Ceon Terry, a 7-year-old who was a ward of the state and had been staying at the facility. He died of “positional asphyxia,” according to the Jefferson County Coroner’s Office, which also 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. 

Two employees involved in the death have been dismissed, the facility said. However, no charges have been filed and police and state officials say they are still investigating.

Ja'Ceon Terry.
Ja’Ceon Terry.Courtesy of The Law Offices of C

“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,” the company said last month. 

As of Nov. 14, 27 children who are in state custody remain in Brooklawn’s care, according to the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services, down from the 32 who were there last month, according to the facility. The state did not answer questions about where the children who are no longer at the facility were sent.

Ja’Ceon’s death exposed critical cracks in Kentucky’s foster care system, including dwindling staffing, according to child advocacy groups that hope the tragedy will bolster a push to have a body outside state government oversee foster facilities.

It also raised questions about the facility’s use of restraints on children.

Rebekah Frank, a former Brooklawn employee who worked at the facility in 2018, said that she witnessed dozens of interactions in which staffers used restraints that were in violation of their training program, which taught that physical restraint should be a last resort.

“You’re not supposed to put them up against anything, because you’re not supposed to restrict breathing at all. It’s just about containing the chaos. It’s not about restraint so much as it is securing them,” she said last month, referring to her training. “These kids had experienced so much trauma already, so if you’re putting a child against a wall to teach them a lesson, that’s abuse.” 

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 organization did not specify which details it disputed.

‘Nonstop’ verbal abuse

For nine months, Janeway said, her son was verbally and emotionally abused and antagonized by staff, and at times she heard it over the phone, according to the lawsuit. 

“Anytime I would talk to Anthony on the phone and he would try to tell me something that they didn’t really want to be told, they would talk over him. They were trying to redirect what he was saying,” she said. “It was nonstop.”

She wanted to pull him out, she said, but at the time wasn’t able to treat his health conditions at home. “I was backed into an impossible corner, so I had to keep my trust in them,” she said. 

Anthony and Autumn Janeway hug at a shopping plaza
Anthony and Autumn Janeway hug at a shopping plaza in Georgetown, Ky.Safia Samee Ali / NBC News

In her suit, Janeway alleges she heard her son was being told to “shut up” during a phone call in August 2021 when he tried to tell her how he was being treated by Miss Debbie, which prompted her to email a social worker. 

In an email reviewed by NBC News from Aug. 30, 2021, Janeway asked for an update on “the incident with staff,” calling it a “pressing issue” and noting that she hadn’t had contact with her son since then. 

A facility director wrote back telling Janeway, “As I stated when I spoke to you on the phone, this concern has been passed on to our internal fact finding process to be looked into. As of today, that process has not been fully completed yet. I will ensure one of us lets you know when it has.  I do want to remind you that we will not be able to tell you what follow up will occur with the employee. That information is protected.” But she said the facility would let Janeway know when the process had been completed.

Autumn Janeway at her home in Georgetown, Ky., on Nov. 14, 2022.
Autumn Janeway at her home in Georgetown, Ky., on Nov. 14.Michael Swensen for NBC News

In her suit, Janeway said, during her son’s stay at Brooklawn she was not able to see him for two months while it was on Covid lockdown, and it was difficult to reach him at times because of phone and internet outages at the facility. 

In an email reviewed by NBC News from Aug. 30, 2021, she expressed frustration to a Brooklawn social worker that she was unable to make phone calls to her son, to which the employee replied, “I am not an IT specialist, so there is no way of me knowing that when the internet went out, the phone did, as well. I am sure they are working to get something in place as we are now aware of what happens when the internet goes out.”

After the alleged choking in October, Anthony stayed at Brooklawn for another six months while he waited for a bed at another facility, she said.

He was discharged home in March, four months before Ja’Ceon’s death. 

But Anthony’s behavior was very different than before he went to Brooklawn, she said. He became “very distant, very quiet, very skittish like you were going to hurt him,” she said. 

“I trusted a broken system that is supposed to help my son, not hurt my son, and it failed him,” she said. 

The experience changed her, as well, she said. 

“I feel absolute regret and it eats me alive everyday.” she said “Every day after that, I have wished that I just brought the whole entire police force with me. I wish that I didn’t listen. I wish I had that officer so somebody could have walked out of there in handcuffs and not been able to hurt anybody else. I wish I spoke up and not trusted them. That way, my son wouldn’t possibly be lingering with the trauma of what they did to him.” 

Janeway is now calling for the facility to be shut down immediately.

Her lawsuit alleges negligence and negligent hiring, training, supervision and retention against the facility.

Autumn Janeway wrote "Uspiritus hurt my son Anthony and killed Ja'Ceon!" on the back window of her car.
Autumn Janeway wrote “Uspiritus hurt my son Anthony and killed Ja’Ceon!” on the back window of her car.Michael Swensen for NBC News

“This lawsuit was filed on behalf of another child victim that was choked and abused at the Brooklawn facility,” Paul Croley, a lawyer who filed the suit, said in a written statement. Croley also has filed a suit alleging wrongful death, negligence and negligent hiring, training, supervision and retention on behalf of Ja’Ceon’s estate.

“Brooklawn and its parent companies knew of a terrible and dangerous problem. They shamefully ignored it. The consequences are horrific,” Croley said in the statement. “Our investigation and pursuit will continue until all of the these hurt children see justice and this never happens again,”

Following Ja’Ceon’s death, the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services said it has taken “additional action” against Uspiritus. 

“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,” Susan Dunlap, a spokesperson for the agency, said in a statement.

Dunlap said that a final version of the findings is still awaiting approval by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services quality assurance team, and that Uspiritus will have 10 days after receiving it to submit a plan of correction. 

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services did not return requests for comment.

Janeway said she is filled with regret for Ja’Ceon and wants his family to know “she sees them and their pain.”

“I’m sorry for what happened to you,” she said. “That could have very easily been my son.” 

“Those fears are still there, that regret and that hurt and knowing that, just maybe, I could have saved a child’s life. But I was scared to say anything because I trusted them and that makes me mad, so mad.” 

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