Kentucky official upholds child-neglect ruling in near-fatal injury by Louisville teacher’s aide

Nearly nine years later, father of then-16-year old boy with autism vows to keep fighting for justice for his son and special needs children in Kentucky

By: - March 30, 2023 5:50 am

Brennan Long continues to be a blessing and inspiration to many, says his father. (Long family photo)

Almost nine years after a 16-year-old boy with autism suffered two fractured legs — a near fatal injury — at the hands of a teacher’s aide with Jefferson County Public Schools, the state’s top human services official has upheld a finding of child neglect in the case.

In a March 16 written order, Eric Friedlander, secretary of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, ruled that teacher’s aide Sherman Williams committed neglect in 2014 when he physically restrained Brennan Long, then 16, at the Binet School for children with disabilities.

Eric Friedlander

In doing so, Friedlander upheld a 2017 finding of neglect by the cabinet Williams had appealed.

The case attracted widespread attention after it was first reported in The Courier Journal in 2016, with the boy’s parents expressing outrage that no abuse or neglect had been cited in initial investigations by the cabinet and JCPS. And Louisville police found no criminal wrongdoing over the incident that left Brennan in intensive care with two shattered femurs.

Public attention also triggered several outside investigations raising questions about the case and a review by the state Department of Education of JCPS’ use of restraint and seclusion of students.

Brian Long

Brian Long, Brennan’s father, said he and his wife, Kim, are glad the cabinet has reached a decision after their frustrating, years-long fight for an explanation of how a supposedly safe physical restraint left their son critically injured.

“This is a huge victory and should serve as a proof point that we will never stop fighting for justice for Brennan and special needs children in Kentucky,” Brian Long said in an email.

The Longs, who now live in North Carolina, reached a $1.75 million settlement in 2016 with JCPS over Brennan’s injuries but continued to question how authorities handled the case.

Brian Long said he’s glad the case appears resolved with a decision that would keep Williams from working in a classroom with children. The neglect finding prevents him from such employment.

“JCPS leadership should have made this decision eight-plus years ago,”  Brian Long  said, adding that he, his wife and Brennan are grateful  the cabinet and Friedlander “had the tenacity and courage to get to this outcome.”

Williams continued work as a teacher’s aide until 2017 when he was reassigned after the state, following a second investigation, substantiated neglect against him.

But the case may not be over.

Williams, who now works for JCPS as a warehouse worker, could appeal the decision to Franklin Circuit Court. He has 30 days to do so.

His lawyer, Oliver H. Barber Jr., said he found Friedlander’s order “atrocious” and his client is considering an appeal.

“I think the order is wrong,” Barber said.

Brian Long said he understands the importance of due process but he and his wife don’t believe Williams should prevail on appeal.

“In our opinion, the data and facts are quite compelling and certainly not in his favor,” he said.

Barber said Williams is satisfied with his current job and isn’t seeking a return to the classroom. 

If upheld, Friedlander’s finding would place Williams on the state registry of those found to have committed child abuse or neglect and would bar Williams from working with children.

Friedlander’s order was obtained through the state open records law. While records of child abuse and neglect cases generally are confidential, cases that result in the death or life-threatening injury of a child are considered public record. 

The records  in Brennan’s case shed light on the generally secretive process whereby anyone found to have committed child abuse or neglect may appeal a decision and get the results overturned with little outside scrutiny.

In Williams’ case, he initially persuaded a state hearing officer to overturn the state’s finding of child neglect.

But Friedlander’s ruling reverses that finding.

Friedlander, in his order, found the decision of the hearing officer — a state lawyer assigned to conduct the review — riddled with errors and said it ignored key evidence. In particular, it disregarded the “spiral,” or twisting fractures to Brennan’s legs, that would have required an immense amount of force —a t odds with Williams’ account, his order said.

Williams had claimed he used an approved restraint method to lower the boy to the floor with his legs in front of him. Several other JCPS staff in the classroom claimed either not to have witnessed the incident or backed Williams’ account.

But a former teacher’s aide not interviewed until two years after the event, reported Williams grabbed the boy from behind and the two fell forward.

Williams, whose weight was estimated at around 300 pounds, fell on top of Brennan, whose legs were crisscrossed under him, the aide said. She reported hearing a loud popping sound.

Friedlander’s order said Williams’ claim he used a safe method of restraint was impossible.

“The medical evidence is clear that the hold could not have been applied appropriately as the spiral fractures of both femurs, the strongest bones in the human body, could not have occurred through the manner described,” his order said.

Friedlander’s order cited the findings of Dr. Melissa Currie, a pediatrician and child abuse and neglect expert with Norton Children’s Hospital and the University of Louisville.

Currie, in a 2016 report, found Brennan’s injuries “consistent with acute physical assault” and called for further investigation of the case by the cabinet and police.

Currie cited an independent review by a biomedical engineer hired by the Longs who found that it would have required up to 500 pounds of pressure per leg to fracture each femur.

State social service officials with the cabinet failed to substantiate abuse or neglect after an initial investigation the Longs criticized as inadequate. But after they reopened the case, officials did substantiate neglect by Williams. 

The cabinet said its investigators did not substantiate abuse in the second investigation because they lacked evidence of an assault, but did document neglect for misuse of a restraint that ended in physical injury.

Louisville police who initially investigated the case did not seek criminal charges.

They agreed to reopen the case, but again, did not find evidence of criminal wrongdoing, Jefferson Commonwealth’s Attorney Tom Wine told the Longs in a 2018 letter.

However, Wine was highly critical of police, noting that they lost valuable time from the outset by not attempting to interview anyone at Binet School until two weeks after Brennan was injured.

They didn’t attempt to interview Williams for more than a month but by then, Williams had hired a lawyer and declined to speak with police.

Wine also said the Binet staff interviewed by police may have “colluded” in providing similar accounts, “engaging in the subterfuge that Brennan’s legs had been broken for some unknown reason or unexplained force.”

Brian Long, a chemical industry executive, said he hopes the lengthy ordeal is over for his family. He said Brennan, 24, is doing well and has recovered from the broken legs, commenting:

“Brennan continues to be a blessing and inspiration to many.”

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Deborah Yetter
Deborah Yetter

Deborah Yetter is an independent journalist who previously worked for 38 years for The Courier Journal, where she focused on child welfare and health and human services. She lives in Louisville and has a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and a bachelor's degree from the University of Louisville.