Juvenile Justice Chief Dismissed Over Sex Charge

Print More

A 35-year veteran of child welfare and juvenile justice, and Kentucky’s first commissioner of its Department of Juvenile Justice, was fired a day after being charged in New York with sex abuse.

“I will be totally exonerated,” former state Juvenile Justice Commissioner Ralph E. Kelly declared from his Versailles, Ky., home, about his Sept. 24 arrest for allegedly fondling a young man in a midtown Manhattan hotel.

A day after the arrest, Kelly was fired by Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton (D), who had so admired Kelly that one of his first acts after being elected in 1995 was persuading Kelly, then New Jersey’s director of juvenile services, to run Kentucky’s Department of Juvenile Justice, created by the state General Assembly in 1996.

Within four years Kelly gained a national reputation as a top-notch administrator and planner, as he removed Kentucky from a 1995 consent decree under which the federal government withheld funds from the state because its juvenile facilities operated in violation of the U.S. Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. (See “Once Lame Juvenile Justice System Jockeys to the Lead,” Youth Today Dec/Jan 2001.)

The details are still being sorted out about what happened in September, when Kelly took personal leave to attend the University of Louisville/Army football game in Brooklyn. Kelly, 65, who was born in New York, told the Louisville Courier-Journal that he made the trip with a family friend and the friend’s roommate, both 21-year-old students at the University of Kentucky. Kelly declined to identify the men, but he said his accuser is the roommate.

According to the New York Police Department, the young man said Kelly grabbed his genitals and rubbed them, leading police to file two misdemeanor charges: sexual abuse in the third degree and forcible touching. Kelly called the charges “ludicrous, absurd and simply not true.” He said he doesn’t know why the man would accuse him and contended that there is “definitely a hidden agenda,” but he doesn’t know what that agenda might be.

Aside from hiring a defense lawyer in New York, Kelly has hired an attorney in Kentucky to fight the dismissal from his $91,000-a-year post, saying he was “arbitrarily forced to leave.” The morning after the arrest, with Kelly still in New York but free on his own recognizance, Justice Cabinet Secretary Ishmon Burks asked Kelly to resign by telephone, according to Burks spokeswoman Pamela Trautner.

“I thought I would be placed on administrative leave until the allegation was investigated,” Kelly said. “After all, in our justice system you are innocent until proven guilty.”

The arrest occurred days after Patton publicly acknowledged having an affair with a woman who is suing him for sexual harassment.

Joe Gerth, a Courier-Journal reporter, said that Kelly enjoyed a “fantastic reputation” within the state. He also said “a lot of people” in the state were “uneasy” about the hasty way Burks forced Kelly out.

Through Trautner, Burks made plain that Kelly couldn’t stay in the job “because of the seriousness and gravity of those charges.” No explanation offered by Kelly would have mattered, Burks said.

During Kelly’s six years as juvenile justice commissioner, Kentucky more than doubled its juvenile justice budget, stopped local jailers from housing juveniles and created the nation’s first academy for training youth workers for juvenile corrections positions. He was sought after as a witness for congressional oversight hearings concerned with gauging the effects of nontraditional juvenile justice approaches.

Shortly after Kelly’s arrest, Debra Miller, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, was quoted as saying: “It’s a really sad end to what was a time of progress for Kentucky.”

Contact: Pamela Trautner, (502) 564-7554.