Florida to close controversial juvenile detention center

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The state of Florida  plans to close a large privately-run juvenile offender home that a group of public defenders alleged was rife with problems. State officials say the decision to close the Thompson Academy as of Jan. 4, 2013, is not related to the public defenders’ longstanding allegations of poor supervision and treatment of wards. Instead, officials say, the 154-bed facility’s large size doesn’t match the type of rehabilitation the state is pursuing.

Thompson Academy, a low-security facility in Broward County, is run by Youth Services International, a private company that holds $81.8 million in Florida government contracts to operate seven juvenile offender facilities and programs. The company runs juvenile programs in other states as well, and describes itself as “the premier provider in the youth care industry.”        

C.J. Drake, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, told the Center for Public Integrity Thursday that the state is “moving to smaller residential programs” and Thompson Academy doesn’t fit that profile.  “Controversy in the past has nothing to do with the decision,” Drake said.

In June, as the Center for Public Integrity reported, Broward County public defenders filed an unusual petition — for a writ of habeas corpus — asking a Florida state court for an order to remove and stop sending juvenile offenders to Thompson.

Gordon Weekes, Broward County chief assistant public defenders, said at the time that wards appeared to have suffered abuses, including intimation, physical harm and the use of food as “currency” to reward certain behavior.

In subsequent court filings, lawyers for Youth Services International strongly denied the allegations, calling them a “torrent of unsubstantiated and irrelevant accusations.”

The public defenders’ fight with Youth Services International was not the company’s first legal skirmish in Florida.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which alleged that a 14-year-old boy had been sexually assaulted at Thompson, sued Youth Services International in 2010. That suit was resolved in May 2011 with a sealed settlement. Weekes said that the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice should disclose the terms of the settlement so that the public can be assured that corrective action has been taken, if it was ordered by the court. 

Florida has been in the forefront nationally in moves to privatize the operation of adult and juvenile lockup and treatment programs. Some juvenile-justice activists contend that this has allowed companies to try to seek favored status among politicians.

Along with other companies, Youth Services International has been a generous donor to Florida politicians in recent years, a development that Weekes called “the elephant in the room.”

In June, in response to the public defenders’ petition before state court, the Department of Juvenile Justice issued a statement arguing that previous claims of wrongdoing at Thompson “have been investigated and were not substantial.”  The statement also said that earlier in 2012, accrediting agencies had given Thompson Academy a passing grade, noting some of its program strengths and making some recommendations for improvement.The Department of Juvenile Justice also contended that a system is in place for wards or others to use a “hotline” to report allegations of abuse at facilities, and that various state authorities are empowered to investigate reports.

After the public defenders filed their petition in court, the department said, it sent a team to Thompson Academy to interview most of the youths the public defenders represented. “The only issue of significance identified in these interviews was the complaint by some youth that they were not getting enough to eat,” the state said. A dietician was supposed to look into the matter.

In July, judges of Florida’s 17th Judicial Circuit Court juvenile delinquency division met to hear the public defenders’ petition.

The judges declined to take on a role as “overseer” of the facility, noting that many agencies possess that role.

However, the judges said, the efforts of the public defenders to “champion the cause for the indigent and ensure that we each stand equal should be recognized.” The court appointed the Broward County’s Office of the Guardian Ad Litem to represent children at Thompson for one year.

Lawyers with Aronowitz Law in Miami, the law firm representing Youth Services International, said the company did not want them to comment on the state’s decision to discontinue its contract with Thompson as of January.

The Department of Juvenile Justice informed Youth Services International of its decision in a private letter dated Aug. 2, 2012. The company was invited to compete in upcoming bids to operate smaller programs.