Cockerell, Former Texas Youth Services Leader, to Lead Kentucky Juvenile Justice

Kentucky has declared an intention to reform its juvenile justice system, and it lured an out-of-state veteran out of retirement to get it done.

Carey Cockerell, the former head of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS), will become commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) in mid-September.

“Juvenile justice is undergoing a top-to-bottom transformation in Kentucky, and Mr. Cockerell brings the knowledge and expertise to shepherd reforms with transparency and accountability,” said John Tilley, the former state legislator who now heads the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet – the agency that oversees DJJ – in a statement announcing the hire. “We were impressed by his commitment to public safety and his compassion for our youth.”

Cockerell spent 20 years as head of the juvenile justice department for Tarrant County, Texas, which includes the Fort Worth metro area. He left the county in 2004 and took over DFPS the next year, and left in 2008. Since then, Cockerell has remained active in juvenile justice advocacy.

Kentucky passed a juvenile justice reform package (S.B. 200) in 2014, and in 2015 (its first full year of implementation), it greatly reduced its reliance on confinement for low-level offenders. The locking up of those offenders was and is Kentucky’s most transparent juvenile justice flaw: Many of the youths confined by the state are there for status offenses, transgressions that would not be considered crimes if they were adults.

The previous DJJ commissioner, Bob Hayter, was fired in February after the death of a 16-year-old girl in one of the state’s juvenile justice facilities. Hayter suspended one of the employees who failed to properly monitor the girl on the night of her death, but he had failed to disclose the worker’s history of disciplinary problems.

Cockerell has experience in transitioning systems toward community-based services. He served until last week on the advisory board for Youth Advocate Programs, a national provider of community-based alternatives to incarceration. Cockerell was integral in the evolution of YAP, bringing the program to a state outside of the Mid-Atlantic region for the first time in the 1990s.

Kentucky Youth Advocates (KYA), a longtime proponent of juvenile justice reform in the state, supports the hire based on the man who brought Cockerell in.

“For anyone in Kentucky to have some over-detailed view would be naïve, because we don’t know him,” said Executive Director Terry Brooks. “We have respect for Secretary Tilley. When he was legislator, he was one of the architects for fundamental juvenile justice reform. The fact that John Tilley hired him means he has window with us.”

Asked what the juvenile justice reform priorities in Kentucky are at the moment, Brooks ticked off five that KYA favors:

  1. Setting an age ceiling (probably 10) under which delinquents would be handled in the child welfare system and not have juvenile justice contact.
  2. Improved disaggregation of juvenile justice data by race, ethnicity and gender, a notion Brooks said has gained bipartisan support.
  3. Defending and maintaining the system’s efforts to lower reliance on confinement against any backlash (“Sometimes, policy work is defending progress,” Brooks said. “We gotta be vigilant to make sure there’s not regression.”)
  4. A discussion about how incarceration of parents influences delinquency. According to the “A Shared Sentence” report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Kentucky has the highest percentage of kids with an incarcerated parent.
  5. Continuing plans for interagency partnerships between the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.

Cockerell’s short stint at DFPS included perhaps the largest single child protection incident in American history. Child protective services officials removed more than 450 youths from a ranch owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), a decision that quickly became a referendum on church and state when Texas struggled to document actual instances of abuse or neglect.

Cockerell left DFPS in June of 2008, a month after a state judge ordered the return of all children to the ranch.

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John Kelly
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.