State officials have refused a request by The Frontier for reports detailing serious incidents at a Muskogee juvenile facility where a 16-year-old hanged himself in December, citing a law allowing the Office of Juvenile Affairs to withhold “agency records.”
The reports contain personal information involving children and the facility’s staff, said Terri Watkins, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Mike Hunter. The Frontier asked that all names and other identifiers of juveniles be redacted from the reports but Watkins said the AG’s office was still advising OJA not to release the records.
On Dec. 15, 2016, Billy Woods, 16, hanged himself in a regional juvenile detention center operated by the Muskogee County Council on Youth Services (MCCOYS).
The state Office of Juvenile Affairs temporarily revoked the center’s license to operate following Woods’ death. The incident is now under investigation by the Department of Human Services’ Office of Client Advocacy.
The facility has remained closed since.
The Frontier requested critical incident reports in January for the last three years for the facility. MCCOYS contracted with Muskogee County, which contracts with the Office of Juvenile Affairs.
Under the contract, the facility was required to send reports to OJA with 24 hours of any critical incident.
Critical incidents include neglect or abuse by caregivers, acts of violence, and deaths and injuries to residents, according to the contract.
After interviewing Woods’ attorney and father Jan. 27, The Frontier requested reports to determine the facility’s history.
An OJA spokeswoman told a reporter for The Frontier on Feb. 21 that the records were being redacted. However, an assistant attorney general later denied the request.
“The records in question are considered ‘agency records’ and as such, ‘are confidential and shall not be open to the general public, inspected or their contents disclosed,’” Assistant Attorney General Rachel Holt said in a letter.
The state statute cited says “the court shall make and keep records of all cases brought before the court” pursuant to the statute and “pertaining to a juvenile proceeding or a child.”
Dan Smolen, an attorney representing Woods’ family, said the records have nothing to do with the juvenile adjudication system as the cited statute describes. Tulsa attorney Caleb Salmon is assisting Smolen.
“The public should know about the number of incidents — particularly preventable incidents —that occur in the facility that someone’s child could be housed in,” Smolen said.
“This would be something that if a family were putting a child in daycare or a family member in a nursing home, that they’d want to know about.”
The day before his death, Muskogee police arrested Woods on a warrant through Arkansas.
An employee at the detention facility was the last person to see Woods before he died, the employee told police in an incident report.
[perfectpullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“This kid was suicidal and they put him in a holding cell that was conducive for a juvenile in a suicidal state to have the means to kill himself.” – Attorney Dan Smolen[/perfectpullquote]
Around 7:30 p.m., Woods said he was going to take a shower and seemed to be acting normal, the employee said.
The worker went to check on Woods an hour later and found him under a sink inside his cell, unresponsive, he said.
However, the incident report says emergency responders described Woods as being “cold” and his arms and legs were stiff with rigor mortis.
The juvenile center staff kept a daily log that indicated Woods wasn’t feeling well and wished to stay in his room, the incident report notes.
“This kid was suicidal and they put him in a holding cell that was conducive for a juvenile in a suicidal state to have the means to kill himself,” Smolen said.
A MCCOYS representative said no one was available for comment Friday afternoon. Muskogee County District Attorney Orvil Loge declined to comment on the incident.
Woods was loving and nurturing, his dad, Heath Woods, said in an interview with the Frontier. His son liked to read and make music.
“He loved his brothers and sisters,” he said. “He loved his mom’s kids, as well.”
The Office of Juvenile System Oversight, which falls under the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth, used to complete annual visit reports on MCCOYS, a private facility not operated by the state.
Now, the agency only conducts annual visits on state-ran facilities, said Harold Jergenson, an oversight specialist with the office. The office stopped visiting private facilities in November 2009 when a statute changed and now only performs oversight if a complaint is filed, he said.
The Office of Juvenile System Oversight hasn’t visited MCCOYS since the law changed because no complaints have been received, he said.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“He loved his brothers and sisters. He loved his mom’s kids, as well.” – Heath Woods[/perfectpullquote]
MCCOYS operated the regional detention center for 19 years before the Office of Juvenile Affairs temporarily revoked its license on Dec. 22 after Woods was found dead in his cell.
The Oklahoma Department of Human Services Office of Client Advocacy is investigating the death, and the facility remains closed.
Whether the Office of Juvenile Affairs reinstates the license has yet to be determined, said Tierney Tinnin, an agency spokeswoman.
“The Oklahoma Department of Human Services Office of Client Advocacy has not completed its investigation into the incident; therefore it would be premature for us to make a decision regarding reinstating the license for the facility.” Tinnin said.
MCCOYS executive director Cindy Perkins, gave a 30-day notice to terminate its contract in a letter on March 13, to Muskogee County Commissioner Kenny Payne, the Muskogee Phoenix reported. Because the facility has been closed, MCCOYS was unable to pay the occupancy expenses, the letter states.
Muskogee County paid MCCOYS $465,959 each year for 10 beds, according to its contract.