Officials in Sedgwick County, Kansas have the facts before them.
In September, a 17-year-old foster youth in an acute mental health crisis ended up not in the care of psychiatric clinicians where he belonged, but pinned face-down by staff on the floor of a juvenile correctional facility.
Three months later, the Black teen’s death was found to be a homicide, and no individual is being held legally responsible. But state and local authorities have the information they need to hold the systems that failed him accountable, and to try and ensure that no child dies like Cedric Lofton again.
Twenty-three members of a community task force offer a roadmap, which is now under review by local officials who have the power to take heed, or shelve the report. Dozens of recommendations to improve the child welfare and youth justice systems, as well as the Wichita Police Department and 911 emergency communications include increased funding for mental health services and mobile crisis response, requiring trauma-informed training for law enforcement and corrections staff and changing policies on use-of-force and physical restraints.
Members of the panel that has spent the last three months coming up with the recommendations stress the urgent need to adopt the changes. Those convened include religious and community leaders, members of the NAACP and legal advocates for youth and families.
“Mental health and what was going on with Cedric Lofton is impacting all of our youth right now,” said task force member Marquetta Atkins, executive director of Progeny, a Wichita-based youth justice advocacy group. “The task force was created so that this would not happen to somebody else in the future.”
In an email to The Imprint, Sedgwick County communications officer Nicole Gibbs, said the county’s Department of Corrections has created an internal team to review the 25 recommendations related specifically to youth corrections and that all of them “will be considered.”
“We look forward to evaluating how the recommendations may strengthen our department and better serve the youth and families in Sedgwick County,” Gibbs said.
A spokesperson for the Kansas Department for Children and Families also said the agency is evaluating the recommendations to see “if current work addresses some of the issues and what it would take to move forward on others.”
“The agency sees this as an opportunity to improve our processes,” Jenalea Randall said.
Sedgwick County and Wichita city officials will also report back to the Community Taskforce to Review Youth Corrections Systems Standards in the coming months.
Crisis turns to tragedy
Cedric’s friends, family and caregivers became concerned about his deteriorating mental health in the weeks before he was killed, according to an investigation released Jan. 18 by Kansas District Attorney Marc Bennett. They said the teen had become paranoid, described seeing things that weren’t there and expressed feeling fearful of those around him.
He attended his grandmother’s funeral with relatives. But they later told Cedric’s foster father that they were worried he was showing signs of schizophrenia, the report states.
Cedric’s foster father reportedly followed the instructions from his caseworker with the Department of Children and Families. The day before his death, he brought him to a clinic for a mental health evaluation. But upon arrival, Cedric took off. He returned to his foster home early the next morning. Acting on the social worker’s guidance, his foster father did not let him in the house, but called 911 instead, the attorney general report states.
The ensuing interaction with police quickly turned violent, with Wichita police officers placing the teen in mental distress in leg shackles and a full-body restraining harness.Then, they took him to a detention facility on charges of battery on a law enforcement officer.
During the booking process at the Juvenile Intake and Assessment Center, Cedric struggled to free himself while being physically escorted to a holding cell. That’s when four juvenile corrections officers and facility staff restrained the 135-pound teen face down on the floor. After about a half hour, Cedric “relaxed” and began to “snore,” the staffers stated to the AG’s office. Shortly thereafter, however, one of the four adults holding him down “does not hear Cedric breathing. He checks Cedric’s pulse and could not find one.”
In December, the Sedgwick County chief medical examiner determined Cedric’s death was a homicide resulting from “complications of cardiopulmonary arrest sustained after physical struggle while restrained in the prone position.” But District Attorney Bennett declined to prosecute the juvenile detention center staff whose actions led to the teen’s death, determining that the state’s “stand your ground” law gave them the right to use physical force for self-defense, and provided them immunity from legal repercussions.
Chicago-based civil rights attorneys Andrew Stroth and Steven Hart, along with Kansas lawyer Ben Embry, are preparing to file a federal civil rights lawsuit against the key agencies involved in Cedric’s death.
The U.S. Department of Justice is also reviewing the case.
“The system failed Cedric Lofton,” said Stroth. “The foster care system failed Cedric, the Wichita police and the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office failed Cedric, and clearly the personnel at the juvenile intake center failed Cedric.”
Calls for change
Advocates say Cedric never should have been in the correctional facility where he died in the first place, and should have been taken to the hospital instead.
The task force launched in February by the Sedgwick Board of County Commissioners and the Wichita City Council that’s reviewing his case and its broader implications has examined the racial demographics of children in foster care, commitments to racial equity by local agencies, incident reports, and how mentally ill, runaway youth and traumatized children should be cared for by authorities. Documents reviewed included the “Children in Need of Care Code Book” and “From Harm to Healing: The Blueprint to Healthier Outcomes for Kansas Youth.”
During a March task force meeting, a startling revelation emerged: Officers who brought Cedric into the correctional facility lied on an admissions form, reportedly to avoid having to bring him to a hospital, a supervisor at the intake center testified.
The officer had originally answered “yes” to questions centering on whether Cedric displayed signs of “acute illness” and had “signs of intoxication with significant impairment in functioning.” But when the officer learned those conditions would require police to transport the teen to a medical facility, he and his supervisor decided to change the answers to “no,” according to the public testimony.
Task force member Atkins said she was “horrified” and “appalled” that “one simple answer” could have changed the trajectory of that night and saved Cedric’s life.
The working group she participated in has since published 57 recommendations aimed at increasing access to mental health services and bolstering accountability for the systems and people who take authority over vulnerable youth like Cedric. They include:
- A 24-hour mobile crisis response unit that could serve as an alternative to the 911 system for mental health needs
- Implicit bias training and trauma-informed training in mental health issues for all law enforcement officers, foster care workers and employees of juvenile corrections facilities
- Require foster care agencies to provide mental health care and “mindfulness coaches” for youth and round-the-clock mental health responders on call to guide foster families to more appropriate resources than law enforcement in moments of crisis
- Update use-of-force policies to prohibit any restraint holds that cover the chest, and prioritize hands-off de-escalation approaches, like putting youth in closed rooms to cool off
- Require youth corrections staff to video and audio record each time a youth is placed in a physical restraint, with the recording employee tasked with monitoring the youth’s well-being throughout the process, and “tapping out” a colleague who gets too heated during the restraint
- Have a nurse on duty at all times in any youth correctional facility to help ensure youth safety
Atkins said that while the task force is pushing for specific policy changes, a wider culture shift in youth services and emergency response is needed in order for the reforms to actually make a difference.
“We have to explore, when does a mental health crisis turn into a means to be arrested?” she said. “When there’s a 17-year-old that’s going through a psychosis and he’s resisting arrest because he’s afraid — and instead of taking them to the hospital you arrest him because you’re aggravated — that’s culture. That’s a culture shift that needs to happen.”
Beyond fixing policies at the agencies involved in Cedric’s case, task force members want the Legislature to review the state’s “stand your ground” law for potential reform and the creation of a citizen review board tasked with investigating law enforcement failures.
Attorney Stroth said Cedric’s family is pleased overall with what he called as a comprehensive and practical list of reforms and said if these changes had been in place when Cedric needed help, he would still be alive today.
“But still,” Stroth said, “those recommendations don’t bring back Cedric Lofton. So for them, it’s kind of hollow.”