No Vacancy: Lack of open beds at TN juvenile detention centers, children forced to sleep on floors

CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Tennessee is so short on places to house children accused of crimes, some are being sent home for the night and others are sleeping on office floors.

However, Montgomery County leaders are hoping the state and others help them raise funds for them to be able to detain children within county lines securely.

“If we had a local facility, our law enforcement could stay healthier, this team could stay healthier, the parents could stay educated instead of this living in fear of where is my child,” said Montgomery County Juvenile Couty Director Danette Thigpen-Woodcock.

On Wednesday, when two teenage boys pistol-whipped a man in his 80s and stole his car, they didn’t spend the night in detention. Instead, they slept on the floor of the police department because there were no available beds.

“The police officers are there overnight, they are exhausted they have been there all day,” said Montgomery County Juvenile Court Judge Sharon Massey Grimes. “We should not be expending our resources to basically babysit these children because we don’t have significant resources to put them in a secure facility.”

County officials say it isn’t rare for them to be up all night calling centers in more than seven other counties, begging for a place to keep a child for the night safely.

The search for beds that happened Wednesday also happened on Saturday and Thursday.

“It took five of us yesterday and we did it until we couldn’t and then the judge said ‘release,'” Thigpen-Woodcock said.

On those nights when they need to let a juvenile suspect spend the night at home before a trial, Thigpen-Woodcock says she spends the night worrying.

“It weighs on you all night until you get back to court the next day,” she said.

And she said judges often have to do a shuffling act to figure out which juveniles will go to which available beds.

“They have to sit down and make the hard decision. What child do we have to take out to put these other two in?” Thigpen-Woodcock said.

She and Judge Grimes say they stay on call 24/7 to answer calls regarding child detention.

“We are doing the best that we do but we are really not serving our children like we should,” Thigpen-Woodcock said.

The county hopes having its own juvenile resource facility will rehabilitate these juveniles and make parents and children feel safer while going through the legal process.

“That child lives in fear. Where am I going? What am I doing? Is my Mom going to be there?” Thigpen-Woodcock explained.

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She says even without funding from the state, the county is determined to build this facility, but extra help would help make her dream to give more to these children a reality.