The death of a 17-year-old in custody at the Sedgwick County Juvenile Intake and Assessment Center on Sept. 24 has brought renewed attention to the use of physical force on minors in crisis. (Matt Hennie/The Beacon)

Update: Sedgwick County corrections employees involved in the death of Cedric “C.J.” Lofton won’t face criminal charges, District Attorney Marc Bennett said during a press conference on Jan. 18, 2022. Lofton, 17, died after becoming unresponsive as Department of Corrections staff restrained him face-down for over 30 minutes.

An autopsy ruled Lofton’s death a homicide.

But Bennett said employees who restrained Lofton are immune from prosecution under Kansas law. If he did file charges, Bennett said a judge would dismiss the case.

“The bottom line is, the workers were acting in self defense under Kansas law,” Bennett said. “They’re at work. They’re authorized to do this. And our case law has made it clear to anyone who is paying attention to our stand your ground law  — if you’re acting in self defense, you are immune from prosecution.”

Department of Corrections Director Glenda Martens also announced that the county would form a community task force to review policies at the Juvenile Intake and Assessment Center where Lofton was detained and make recommendations for any improvements.

In September, Wichita police were called to the home of Cedric “C.J.” Lofton, a 17-year-old whom law enforcement later described as  “paranoid” and “behaving erratically.” Officers placed the teen in a full-body restraint after they say he refused to seek voluntary mental health treatment, then transported him to the Juvenile Intake and Assessment Center (JIAC). 

Two days later, he was dead.

Lofton’s death has prompted questions about how adults can prevent the onset of delinquency and support positive development — usually coined as “early intervention” — and how law enforcement can de-escalate volatile children in the midst of a mental health crisis. Lofton was placed in a WRAP, a device with a locking shoulder harness, leg restraints and ankle straps. 

Since his death, community organizations have been demanding answers, such as who can advocate for a “child killed in state custody” and whether staff at JIAC — which is operated by the Sedgwick County Department of Corrections —  followed policy regarding use of force and restraints.

Police said they restrained Lofton after he physically struggled with officers. Lofton was charged with four counts of battery against a law enforcement officer. According to police and the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, Lofton was released from the restraint after arriving at JIAC.

Lofton was placed in a holding cell at JIAC and was found unresponsive later that night after an alleged physical struggle with corrections staff, according to law enforcement. The KBI is investigating Lofton’s death. 

“A call for help should not turn into (Lofton) going to a jail for kids,” LaWanda DeShazer, vice president of Wichita’s NAACP branch, said in an interview. Several members of the NAACP were among 40 people who signed a letter to county officials demanding transparency regarding Lofton’s death.

Cedric ‘C.J.’ Lofton died on Sept. 26 after being found unresponsive in a holding cell at the Sedgwick County Juvenile Intake and Assessment Center. (Photo courtesy

“There are so many disconnects,” she said. “C.J. had a meltdown. Where was his caseworker? His social worker? A social worker? Something was missing.”

The use of restraints and force on a child in the midst of an apparent mental health crisis has drawn ire. Activists said an alternative form of intervention could have saved Lofton’s life.

“Intervention can look different. It’s not always about physically stopping (kids) from breaking things or others. It’s about preventing them from self-harm or harm to others,” Cameron LeBron, an attendant care worker for St. Francis Ministries, said. 

Lofton was in foster care under the organization’s supervision.

Effective empathy

Mark Soler, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Children’s Law and Policy, has worked on juvenile justice issues for more than 40 years. He said using a physical restraint on Lofton was a mistake. 

“The WRAP should not be used, period,” Soler said. “These kinds of restrictive measures are all too easy to use when the situation is not dire and when other alternatives can be used.” 

LeBron worked as a Positive Behavior Parent, an in-school mentor to reinforce positive behavior in kids, in public schools prior to his transition to St. Francis Ministries in January 2020. He said both roles taught him the benefit of trauma-informed training. 

“You’re taught certain things when it gets to that point,” he said, emphasizing the need for a safe space. “Eventually you’ll see de-escalation. Physically you’ll notice they start getting tired. They get back to a resting place.” 

LeBron said trauma-informed training uses empathy as a tool in treatment, particularly for those with traumatizing pasts.

“The more empathetic you are in a situation, the more effective you can be in that situation with the individual. You have to be aware of who you’re dealing with and what their triggers are,” he said. 

Soler said it is rare that a young person “simply goes off for no reason.”

“A young person may get disruptive. The cause of the disruption may not be readily apparent,” Soler said. “The key thing is to find out the reason behind the behavior.” 

For children involved in the juvenile justice system, there is a high likelihood they carry trauma from histories of abuse or mental health problems.

A study of reports to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, published by the European Journal of Psychotraumatology in 2013, shows that  a majority of young people in the justice system have suffered exposure to trauma. Several other studies corroborate the conclusion.  

A tap on the back to someone with a history of physical abuse could be an accidental trigger, resulting in a combative child, LeBron said. Strapping a child in a restraint could further traumatize them.

“There is a physical difficulty of getting a child into this restraint,” Soler said. “It is not simply grabbing wrists and putting the child in handcuffs. It takes a lot to subdue the child with their legs and their arms to get them wrapped up.” 

He said a young person having a crisis needs a caring person to sit and listen to them, serving as a calm voice interested in them rather than using force. 

“The episode of being wrapped in the restraint can be a trigger for PTSD or for other kinds of recalling past trauma,” Soler said.

Charles Hammond, the president of Safe Restraints, Inc., the California-based manufacturer of the WRAP restraint Lofton was placed in, said restraining anyone should be the last resort. 

“It’s not a pain tool,” Hammond said. “We want to get them up so they can breathe as quickly as possible. The sooner we get someone upright and breathing, the sooner we can get medical care.”

He added that the WRAP restraint should not be used in a situation where a child is “having a temper tantrum.”

In Sedgwick County, the Wichita Police Department is the only law enforcement agency that uses WRAP restraints and provides training to officers for certification.

The Wichita Police Department has deployed WRAP 83 times since starting to use the restraint in summer 2020, according to statistics provided to The Wichita Beacon on Nov. 1.

1 individual reported minor scratches; no others claimed injury.
275 officers are trained and certified to use the WRAP restraint — about 66% of patrol officers in the field.
10 minors between the ages of 13 and 17 years old have been restrained.

Officer Charley Davidson, a Wichita police spokesperson, did not provide details on the cases involving WRAP restraints and minors. But in an email, Davidson wrote that the WRAP restraint helps control and immobilize violent or combative subjects who have been detained or taken into custody. 

DeShazer likened the use of restraints to backing someone into a corner. 

“When animals feel trapped, and they have no way out, they attack,” she said. “When you put someone that’s having an emotional breakdown, a crisis, into a corner, they’re going to become combative.” 

She added that if restraint is necessary in a crisis, a child should be released into a mental health care facility like COMCARE — not into a guarded facility. 

Wichita’s grief

An online memorial to Lofton depicts a photo of the teenager before and after the night that led to his death. 

“Cedric loved his family and his job,” Sarah Harrison and Chad Lofton, Lofton’s biological parents, wrote in a statement to Gov. Laura Kelly and other elected officials. “(He) enjoyed writing songs and poetry, and liked to sing.”

They wrote that Lofton’s restraint and detainment was “unreasonable,” and demanded access to video footage depicting the last moments of their son’s life. A separate letter from the attorneys for Lofton’s parents referred to law enforcement’s involvement as “deadly force.” 

The Beacon contacted Lofton’s family through a spokesperson for the family. His father declined an interview. 

“It should not have happened this way,” DeShazer said. “When we have young people go into crisis mode, they make mistakes. They do crazy things.”

“We can’t stifle their growth,” she said. “We still have to put them in situations where they can overcome.” 

More than two dozen organizations signed a separate letter to Kelly, the Department of Children and Families, and the President of St. Francis Ministries, stating that “our community grieves the loss of this young man’s life.”

The letter included a list of questions “asked in good faith,” such as: “What policies govern the procedures followed when a mental health crisis arises with a foster child?” 

LeBron said adults addressing a child in crisis, like Lofton, need to understand the difference between a mental health crisis and criminal activity. 

“The improper response could be the loss of life,” he said.

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