Failed by the Mental Health System, Killed in Juvenile Detention
When I heard there would be no charges in the death of Cedric Lofton, I was heartbroken, but I wasn’t surprised. Cedric, a teenager in the midst of a mental health crisis, died while being restrained at the Sedgwick County Juvenile Intake and Assessment Center (JIAC) here in Wichita, Kansas.
I did not know Cedric, but I do know the systems that killed him, and I know how rarely they are held accountable. I’ve seen what happens when young people don’t get the mental health services they need. As an advocate with Progeny – a youth/ adult partnership focused on reimagining juvenile justice and reinvesting in community-based alternatives – I also know how easily his death could have been prevented if the adults involved actually listened to young people instead of locking them up when they need help.
When the 911 calls leading up to Cedric’s death were released, along with footage of what happened at the JIAC, I felt my frustration build once again. His foster father called 911 to say that Cedric appeared to be having a schizophrenic episode. He asked that Cedric, 17, be taken a mental health facility. But that didn’t happen. Instead, police brought Cedric to a juvenile detention center.
The next 911 call came from guards, who again asked for officers to take Cedric for a mental health screening. Again, that did not happen. Instead, he was placed in leg shackles, and later handcuffs, and restrained facedown for more than half an hour. The fourth and final 911 call was also from a guard, who reported that Cedric had stopped breathing. At that point he was taken to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead two days later, just a day before what would have been his 18th birthday.
Like so many other youth in foster care, Cedric’s psychological issues were met with force, not care. The message to young people – especially young people of color, like Cedric – is clear: Your lives don’t matter. That message was driven home yet again when Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett announced his decision not to charge anyone involved, despite the coroner’s finding that his death was a homicide. The guards who held Cedric down were “following policy,” according to Bennett. Under Kansas’s Stand Your Ground law, he also claimed, they were within their rights.
The footage of the incident tells a different story. Cedric may have fought back when guards initially put their hands on him, but by the time the 135-pound teenager stopped breathing, he was in leg shackles and handcuffs and had been pinned to a cell floor for almost 45 minutes. When does Cedric get to stand his ground? When we see a white youth like Kyle Rittenhouse, who actually shot and killed people, successfully use this defense, how can we not ask these questions? This is why our community is so outraged.
At first, I feared that Cedric’s death would be swept under the rug, but the community refused to let that happen. We wrote letters and held rallies and did everything we could to make sure this tragedy was not ignored. Early on, I participated in a town hall that Progeny and the NAACP Youth Committee put together. We called for a collective conversation about the systemic issues that are a catalyst to the mental health crises our youth are experiencing. After the D.A. announced he would not press charges, we organized a Ride for Justice and painted our car windows with “Justice for CJ” and “Murdering Youth Should Never be Procedure.”
Now we learn that the FBI has apparently opened an investigation into Cedric’s death, and the city of Wichita and Sedgwick County have convened a task force to recommend changes to ensure that this does not happen again. When I was invited to join the task force, I knew I had to do it. I want justice for Cedric, but I also want broader changes. My hope is that people will realize that bringing a child who is having a mental health crisis to a juvenile detention center is the exact opposite of what we need. These places are a mental health crisis. They’re a human rights crisis. And kids in foster care are the most vulnerable to winding up there because their mental health needs have gone unmet.
Just because you’re in foster care doesn’t mean you should lose agency over your body. When a young person is in crisis, they should have access to a mental health worker, a social worker, or even just a paramedic who is actually trained in mental health protocols. The fact that the only option for Cedric was the police is deeply troubling, especially given that he was a young Black male. Even though we’ve passed reform bills here in Kansas, racial and ethnic disparities have actually gotten worse, whether you look at kids placed in foster care or in juvenile detention.
The message to young people is that if you’re in foster care, if you wind up in a situation where you’re in crisis and you’re taken to juvenile detention, this is what can happen. It tells us that our city, our county, and even our state do not prioritize our mental health or even our lives. This is why we continue to fight for accountability. If you allow a precedent to exist that young people can be murdered while in the custody of the state, it really means no foster child is safe. That’s scary to think about when you’re in foster care because the whole purpose is supposed to be protecting you.
We can’t bring Cedric back, but local organizers are not going to stop advocating for changes. We want to see the millions spent incarcerating youth invested instead into what young people do need, starting with mental health care. We want a variety of mental health options, not just traditional therapy or pharmaceutical interventions that youth don’t necessarily trust. We want funding for peer mentoring programs, so they can communicate with somebody who has been through the same kinds of experiences they’re now going through. We want to see money designated for youth spent in a way that gives young people agency over their own lives and bodies.
You can’t get a trauma-informed care from a facility that looks like a jail or from correctional officers whose policies are designed to dehumanize you. In the long run, we need to look at shutting youth prisons down entirely and instead investing in safe spaces for young people to go when they’re in crisis.
I’m glad that the FBI is investigating Cedric’s death. I’m glad to be part of a task force and have a chance to raise these issues with people who can make a difference. The young people who have been impacted by these systems know what the solutions are. Now we just need you to listen, and to act.
Jazmine Rogers is a youth leader and community organizer with Progeny, a youth/adult partnership advocating for reinvestment in community-based alternatives for young people in Kansas.