Rutherford County Juvenile Court Judge Donna Scott Davenport, in green judicial robes, pictured with other members of the juvenile court staff. (Photo: RutherfordCountyTN.gov)
I love Tennessee. I’m a native and no matter where I’ve gone, I always thought my home state is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been.
But for the last few days, I’ve felt sad and sick to be a Tennessean for once again, Tennessee has achieved a place in the national consciousness and once again, it’s for no good reason.
And no – the news this time isn’t focusing on pedal taverns or bachelorettes. It’s much, much worse.
On Friday, Nashville’s NPR station, WPLN, released a story in conjunction with ProPublica, a national nonprofit investigative news outlet and it’s now making national news. WPLN’s very fine reporter Meribah Knight has worked with ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network for two years and she and Ken Armstrong of ProPublica worked together to tell the most appalling story to come out of our state in recent years — and boy, that’s saying something.
Knight and Armstrong reported on the practice in Rutherford County of jailing children.
Yes, jailing literal children. The county’s elected juvenile court judge, Donna Scott Davenport, has said in radio interviews that she routinely locks up 8- and 9-year-old children. And while it’s hard to find any reason jailing children would be acceptable, Davenport has been tossing kids in the can for “offenses” as minor as watching other small children fight and not intervening to stop it.
Knight and Armstrong lead their story with an account of one such case, which is so egregious as to defy any rationale. Eleven children were charged with “criminal responsibility for conduct of another,” which isn’t, in fact, a crime at all, even for adults.
The children arrested, all of whom were Black, were placed in handcuffs. An 8-year-old was so scared, she threw up on the floor of her school, where police came to arrest her.
I don’t need to rewrite the story here — there’s a lot to it, and it’s hard to read, but read it you should. I can’t even find the vocabulary to express my thoughts on the story without sputtering: Disgusting. Appalling. Evil.
Davenport, who is white, is a big part of the problem. She says her job isn’t legal but rather “It’s God’s mission.” She calls herself “the mother of the county.” She has lied on her resume, took the Tennessee bar exam five times before passing and makes almost $200,000 annually to preside over Rutherford County’s juvenile court, which she has done since 2000.
But she’s not the only person at fault: the WPLN/ProPublica story includes a judicial commissioner bumming pain pills from a clerk, a police officer dinged for leaving a loaded gun on the seat of her patrol car and a juvenile detention facility director who says if her facility has empty beds, she’s going to find a way to fill them. And fill them she does, as Rutherford County charges $175 a day to jail juveniles for other counties.
Clearly, there’s a gross systemic problem in Rutherford County — making money off jailing children, many of whom are Black. There’s so much immorality.
I’m not one to punch down. Let’s hold accountable the elected Rutherford County Commission members (an 85% white commission) that have continued to approve whopping budget increases for Davenport —23% this year— and her medieval juvenile “justice” system, lauding her for a “good job.”
At the state level, let’s hold accountable the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, which licenses juvenile detention centers and has not once flagged Rutherford County’s center for anything negative, remarking only in reports that the building was clean.
This is the same Tennessee Department of Children’s Services that approves the centers used to house migrant children like the one now closed in Chattanooga after reports staff members sexually abused children staying there.
It’s also the same department that has forced kids in state custody to sleep on the floors of state office buildings.
Something is rotten in Tennessee. It’s not just rotten in Rutherford County. The rot starts above the county level and the rot cannot be laid at the doorstep of one official. Gov. Bill Lee has his faults but these issues with poor treatment of Tennessee’s children began well before he took office in 2019.
Our state’s education system is failing our children. We rank 46th out of 50 states on educational funding. More than 5,000 children lack health care coverage due to Tennessee’s failure to accept federal Medicaid expansion dollars. And when it comes to juvenile justice, 39 of Tennessee’s 95 counties are contracting with Rutherford County to jail juveniles.
I wish to God our state legislators would stop bickering about whether to wear masks or not, whether teachers can teach Black history and what genders can go into which locker rooms and turn their energy and resources to a serious try at improving life for our children. Accountability for Rutherford County’s leaders who have turned a blind eye to the travesty that is the county’s juvenile justice system would be a fine start.
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