Muskogee County Council of Youth Services and four people it employed while operating the county-owned juvenile detention center were named as defendants in a lawsuit filed by the estate of a teen who committed suicide while under their watch.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the Estate of Billy Woods, names as co-defendants the Muskogee County Board of Commissioners, Office of Juvenile Affairs and OJA Executive Director Steven Buck. The estate seeks damages for alleged violations of rights guaranteed by state and federal constitutions and negligence.
Woods, 16, was found dead in his cell the night of Dec. 15, 2016, hours after he was admitted to Muskogee County Regional Juvenile Detention Center "for a mere curfew violation." The teenager allegedly was left in a room unattended and unmonitored with a sheet he reportedly used to hang himself.
Evelyn Hibbs, chairwoman of MCCOYS’ governing board, declined to comment about lawsuit, citing the fact that it involved a juvenile. Cindy Perkins, MCCOYS executive director, was unavailable for comment.
Daniel E. Smolen, a lawyer representing the estate, alleges in a complaint filed in the U.S. District Court of Eastern Oklahoma that Wood was known to be a "suicide risk." MCCOYS and its employees "did little, if anything, to alleviate" the risk, and one employee allegedly exacerbated the situation by ridiculing and belittling the troubled teen.
Smolen alleges in his complaint that MCCOYS employees prepared daily notes purporting to show they had checked on Woods every 15 minutes. Surveillance video reviewed later "proves that none of these purported welfare checks actually occurred."
The complaint also references the findings of an investigation conducted by the Oklahoma Department of Human Services' Office of Client Advocacy after Woods' death. That office is charged with “investigating allegations of abuse or neglect of children in state care in residential programs."
The investigation focused on whether staffers at the juvenile detention center violated the Oklahoma Children's Code prohibition of neglect and abuse. Investigators reportedly "substantiated findings for neglect" by four staffers, who allegedly waited 20 minutes before rendering aid or calling for help after Woods was discovered hanging from a handrail with the sheet around his neck, and a finding for abuse by one of the four staffers.
The juvenile detention center, which is owned by Muskogee County, was operated by MCCOYS for 19 years before terminating its contract in April 2016. Its governing board determined the nonprofit was “unable to absorb the ongoing occupancy expenses with no opportunity for reimbursement ... due to the temporary closure of the facility” after Woods' death.
Muskogee County commissioners awarded a contract to Eastern Oklahoma Youth Services about a year later. The 10-bed juvenile detention facility reopened late last year after OJA reinstated the license.
District 1 Commissioner Ken Doke said the board has been served with the summons and complaint, but he has yet to see the complaint.