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Youth rehabilitation centers in Florida under scrutiny

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A group of Florida public defenders is asking a state court to remove and stop sending troubled juveniles to a privately run detention facility they claim is rife with abuses. A court filing disclosed Wednesday also accuses Florida juvenile-justice officials of lax oversight and asks the court to appoint an independent monitor to investigate the Thompson Academy, a 154-bed "moderate risk" residential center in Florida's Broward County.

Gordon Weekes, Broward County chief assistant public defender, said he has long been concerned about conditions inside the Thompson Academy in Pembroke Pines in Florida. To protect his young clients' confidentiality, Weekes filed the public defenders' motion in early June directly with a judge in Florida's 17th Judicial Circuit. Weekes disclosed it Wednesday after the motion was filed with the court clerk and copies were given to a Florida juvenile prosecutor, the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice and Youth Services International (YSI), the company that runs Thompson Academy.

Broward's public defenders represent 56 children from that county who've been sent to Thompson Academy for housing and treatment, Weekes said.

The motion asks the court for an order to quickly take depositions of "essential witnesses," including former and current Thompson employees and state oversight officials. It also asks for a court order to prevent Thompson Academy employees from knowing, at this point, the identities of juveniles who have complained about alleged abuses. Weekes said he wants the order to protect the minors from possible intimidation by custodians. 

Public defenders allege, in the motion, that Thompson employees "actively smoke" marijuana at the facility and make it available to wards placed there for rehabilitation, and that food quality is poor and so "minimal" staff use it as "currency" to reward youths for certain behavior. 

The motion also alleges excessive use of force. It claims that in January an employee broke a ward's nose and in March another used force that resulted in a ward fracturing his ankle.

Administrators have delayed wards' meetings with attorneys, the motion alleges, and "specifically ordered youth" not to talk about "wrongdoing within the facility." In their filing, the public defenders accuse YSI of having a "bottom-line" corporate culture that undermines wards' rehabilitation. 

"The pattern starts at top," Weekes said. "There's a lack of supervision and a lack of a culture of rehabilitation."

Youth Services International referred calls for comment to Tod Aronovitz, a Florida attorney who represents the company. Aronovitz said he would review the public defenders' court filing. He also said he was meeting Thursday with Weekes to discuss allegations.

In a statement, the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice said: "We cannot comment on pending legal action. However, DJJ is committed to providing quality care to youth in our programs. In reviewing the recent monitoring history for the current contract with Thompson Academy, which began January 5, 2010, staff has been on site 43 times. There have been no deficiencies identified up to the current date. There have been on average two site visits per month over the last 17 months."

YSI holds seven residential facility contracts totaling more than $81.8 million in public money in Florida, according to state juvenile-justice contract records.

Florida's legislators in recent years have moved aggressively to cut criminal-justice costs for the state by outsourcing a large portion of juvenile detention and rehabilitation to private companies.

The company also operates facilities in other states. In March, two Minnesota counties decided to stop sending juveniles to a YSI-run facility in that state because of public defenders' concerns about staff turnover, low-paid employees' qualifications and wards' fears of violence. YSI employees in Minnesota and company representatives from YSI's Florida headquarters reportedly met to address concerns. Minnesota public defenders were invited to tour the facility and changes in training were announced. 

In October 2010, a federal class-action lawsuit filed in Florida against Thompson Academy supervisors and YSI by the Southern Poverty Law Center also accused facility staff of abuses. 

Youths also alleged in that lawsuit that food was scarce, of poor quality and used by staff to coerce wards. The suit also accused supervisors of failure to respond properly to a 14-year-old ward's report to them about alleged sexual assaults by a male employee. A ward said he was forced twice to perform a sex act on an employee, who eventually left the facility. 

The 2010 lawsuit also accused Thompson supervisors of interfering with wards' ability to speak freely with lawyers, including coercing them into signing written statements terminating Southern Poverty lawyers. 

"I felt that if I didn't sign that piece of paper that I was going to be dealt with in a bad manner. So I did what I had to do," one ward said in a deposition last year.

The Southern Poverty Law Center suit was resolved last May with a sealed settlement. The suit's resolution did not include any admission of guilt on the part of YSI. In court documents, company executives denied culpability in connection with the alleged sexual assault of the 14-year-old ward, and denied guilt in connection with alleged poor food quality or attempts to prevent wards from meeting with lawyers. 

The public defenders' motion asks the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice to obtain and disclose terms of the sealed settlement of the Southern Poverty Law Center's lawsuit and what "correction action" was taken, if any.

Weekes said that in his opinion, the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, which has power to severe contracts, has been a "passive monitor" of Thompson Academy. Between Nov. 8 and 10 of 2011, the department's Bureau of Quality Assurance conducted an inspection, state records show, and gave Thompson Academy an overall 88 percent or "commendable" performance.

In December 2011, the U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division issued a highly critical report about two state-run juvenile facilities in Florida, and also attacked the state's quality-assurance system. The Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys and the Jackson Juvenile Offender Center were closed after federal investigators began their probe in 2010.

"The constitutional violations identified in the enclosed report are the result of the state's failed system of oversight and accountability, which we suspect affect the entire juvenile justice system statewide," Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez said in a cover letter to Florida Gov. Rick Scott.

In a January 2012 reply to Perez, Scott defended the state's oversight system.

"We respectfully, but firmly disagree with the unsupported suggestion that the issues identified in the report are systemic throughout DJJ," Scott wrote. "The issues investigated by your office were confined to the closed facility, and do not constitute a sufficient, sound, or fair basis for concluding that an entire state agency and its employees are failing to properly administer the juvenile justice system in Florida."

Weekes acknowledged that the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice did look into allegations that Thompson Academy staff failed to follow protocol after a 14-year-old ward alleged that he had been forced into a sex act with an employee. Some employees were subsequently fired, Weekes said. He said that the department also looked into reports that the former top supervisor at the facility, who is no longer working at the facility, violated policies by taking wards to his home to shower and out to buy clothing.  

Florida legislators in recent years have been aggressively moving toward cutting criminal-justice costs by shifting more custodial responsibility of adults and juveniles to private interests.

Dating back to 1998 and through 2011, Florida campaign donation reports show Youth Services International donated $155,000 to Florida political candidates and the Florida Democratic and Republican parties. In 2011 and through March of this year alone, the company contributed $40,500 to candidates for state office in Florida, political parties and other committees. The Republican Party of Florida received $20,000 of that $40,500. 

Between 2007 and the end of 2010, the Republican Party of Florida received $46,000 out of $65,000 Youth Services International donated to candidates and committees.

"I don't want to make this about politics," Weekes said. "But it's the elephant sitting in the room."

David Utter, a Southern Poverty Law Center attorney, said he is prohibited from discussing the sealed settlement of the 2010 federal lawsuit against Thompson. But he said he's concerned there is insufficient oversight of companies running youth facilities that have links to politicians.

"There is danger," he said, "in privatizing the imprisonment of children" and awarding contracts to companies that donate heavily to politicians.

Continue this story and read more investigations at iWatch News