Columbia NAACP investigating juvenile detention center after I-T - WSMV Channel 4

Columbia NAACP investigating juvenile detention center after I-Team reports

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The Middle Tennessee Juvenile Detention Center in Columbia detains teens who have been accused of delinquent offenses. (WSMV) The Middle Tennessee Juvenile Detention Center in Columbia detains teens who have been accused of delinquent offenses. (WSMV)
COLUMBIA, TN (WSMV) -

What the Channel 4 I-Team discovered through various records raised questions about how some troubled teens were getting treated at a local juvenile detention center.

Now the I-Team is uncovering more details about who is running that facility – and how the facility compares to other ones like it across the state.

You can find them all over the state: nine juvenile detention centers that contract with the Department of Children’s Services.

Every now and then, the agency investigates allegations of abuse or neglect.

But one facility stands out from the rest: the Middle Tennessee Juvenile Detention Center in Columbia.

And after what the Channel 4 I-Team uncovered, one community leader wants answers.

“When there is smoke, there is fire,” said Rev. TD Byrdsong, the president of Columbia’s NAACP chapter.

Over the course of three years, DCS conducted 42 investigations at MTJDC, according to an open records request filed by the I-Team.

That’s more than the number at all other facilities combined. At all other juvenile detention facilities that contract with DCS, investigators looked into a total of 25 complaints.

For months, the I-Team has been uncovering allegations surrounding the center, everything from claims of teens not getting proper medical attention to 911 calls detailing abuse allegations.

The center is run by a private facility, and its director, Tom Irwin, had little to say about the allegations.

“Are these accusations unfounded?” asked reporter Alanna Autler. “We are trying to get your side of the story.”

“I have no comment,” Irwin told the I-Team in May.

So who is Tom Irwin?

The I-Team started looking into this past and what we found has some calling his integrity into question.

“We are concerned about the character of the man, and that’s something we look for more than anything,” Byrdsong said.

Personnel records show before Irwin worked at MTJDC, he was a trooper for the Tennessee Highway Patrol.

But in 2007, Irwin was fired over a sexual harassment allegation.

A civil service document states on multiple occasions, Irwin allegedly harassed a court employee.

He was accused of trying to kiss her, and then trying to persuade her from reporting it.

Irwin was never charged with a crime, and in the eyes of DCS is still considered fit for the position.

"Yes, he has been cleared to work around kids, and they’re aware of that,” said Rob Johnson, a spokesman for DCS.

Yet DCS was unaware of what else the I-Team uncovered.

In 2008, Irwin joined the Spring Hill Police Department, but only briefly.

In his personnel file, an investigator noted Irwin had stated on his application that he was POST certified, which is a requirement for all law enforcement officers.

But the investigator wrote that Irwin was not POST certified.

Soon after, Irwin submitted his resignation letter, admitting he was not POST certified.

“Do you view that as a problem?” asked reporter Alanna Autler.

“I’m sure we could take the information and take a look at it and have our licensing people at DCS take a look at it,” Johnson said. “I’m personally not aware of it.”

Byrdsong said the Columbia NAACP chapter has launched its own investigation into the facility.

He said the first step is holding its leaders accountable.

“To me, it’s a failing administration and that’s something we want to try to make better,” Byrdsong said.

Only two allegations of abuse have been substantiated at the center since 2014.

That’s the same number of cases that have been substantiated at the other centers, combined.

The director did not respond to questions about whether his past has any bearing on his ability to care for troubled teens.

When we asked why MTJDC faced so many more complaints, a DCS spokesman re-sent a previous statement:

The Middle Tennessee Juvenile Detention Center serves the toughest youth in the state. Many who pass through MTJDC have gang ties. Many face serious criminal charges.

They also tend to be unsettled and fearful about what their futures hold. All youth make mistakes, but we don’t give up on them.

DCS investigators look into every referral that meets the criteria for abuse and neglect. The DCS staff finds that the center is prompt to fix the state's concerns. Also, MTJDC has adopted the rigorous federal standards designed to reduce the risk of sexual assault. The substantiation rate for abuse and neglect has proven to be low.

DCS requires the center to keep its youth safe. That's not all, though: The center must keep its environment safe -- for the workers, teachers, nurses and counselors who serve a challenging population.

-Rob Johnson, DCS spokesman

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