Several Louisiana kids who were being held at a juvenile detention facility in Dothan, Alabama have been sent back in-state following an altercation at the facility that sent one staff member to the hospital earlier this week. 

Local police officials in Dothan were able to provide limited details regarding the incident, but said they were called out by Southeast Alabama Youth Services — the detention center — on Tuesday, July 6.  

Lieutenant Ronald Hall of the Dothan Police Department told The Lens on Thursday that several kids were involved in a fight, and when a staff member attempted to intervene they were assaulted by one of the kids. Hall said that the staff member received “minor injuries” that were treated at the local hospital. 

No arrests were made or charges filed against the kids involved, and the matter is being handled “in house,” Hall said. He said he believed the kids involved were from Louisiana. 

Some kids throughout the state who get arrested, but have not yet gone to trial or had their cases adjudicated, have been sent to out-of-state juvenile detention centers for at least the last several years — which some advocates and lawyers argue is both bad policy and in violation of state law. The Lens found that over a dozen local governments contract with out-of-state facilities in Alabama and Mississippi and pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to have them house kids who have been arrested.  Local officials in those parishes and cities, where there are no juvenile detention centers, have argued they have no choice due to lack of bed space in the state. 

But last month, for what appears to be the first time, the state’s Office of Juvenile Justice, which runs several youth “secure care facilities” for kids who have already had their cases handled in court, also decided to send some kids out of state — to the facility in Dothan. 

The Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice did not respond to requests for comment about the Tuesday incident. Tabitha Brannon, the executive director of Southeast Alabama Youth Services, was not able to be reached. 

It is not entirely clear how many kids from Louisiana were being held at the facility in Dothan when the incident took place. In mid-May, Brannon, told The Lens that they had seven kids from Louisiana in custody from various parishes around the state.  And last month the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights — who acts as the juvenile public defender in New Orleans —  said that two of their clients who had been in state custody were transferred to Dothan. 

A law enforcement official with knowledge of the situation told The Lens on Friday that there had been four kids total in OJJ custody who were being held in Alabama, and all of them have now been transferred back to Louisiana — two to the Acadiana Center for Youth at St. Martinville, and one to Swanson Center for Youth at Monroe. They could not confirm where the fourth was now being held. 

But it is unclear how many Louisiana kids in local custody prior to trial were being in Dothan, or if and where they are being transferred.  

Aaron Clark-Rizzio, executive director of the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, who represents two of the kids in OJJ custody, said on Thursday that they had not spoken with their clients. 

“While we are still gathering information about what happened, and waiting to speak with our clients, we are deeply disturbed by the news that our clients were involved in a physical altercation while being housed outside of Louisiana,” said Clark-Rizzio,  “This again demonstrates that shipping clients out of state will not solve any problems.” 

LCCR said the transfers to Alabama had occurred without OJJ first informing their lawyers or families, and said that the transfers amounted to an “admittance of gross failure” by the state of Louisiana.

Clark-Rizzio said the incident in Dothan this week illustrated why their concerns over the transfers were justified. 

“In a moment of crisis like this, when our clients are outside of Louisiana and outside of OJJ custody, it is only harder to connect with our clients, access accurate information, and get these children the support they need,” he said.

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...