By MARGIE MENZEL
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice has canceled a contract with a controversial operator of a 40-bed residential facility in Santa Rosa County, with potentially far-reaching implications for the way the state rehabilitates juvenile offenders.
Department officials said the Santa Rosa Substance Abuse Treatment Center hadn’t corrected problems involving safety and security for the 14- to 18-year-old boys in its program. They also pointed to the program’s failure to provide “effective behavioral interventions and appropriate reporting of incidents,” according to a news release.
In a June 26 letter to the provider, Youth Services International, the department said the facility saw four YSI staff members terminated in a two-month period for excessive or unnecessary use of force or the failure to report safety and security issues.
“I think we were very thorough in our process in identifying where the deficits were with the program,” said the department’s interim secretary, Christy Daly. “The actual decision to default on the contract was not a difficult one, because at all times we are focused on the safety of these children and holding our providers accountable.”
The canceled contract means Youth Services International can’t bid on new contracts with the state for at least 12 months.
The company continues to operate nine private, for-profit juvenile facilities in Florida, but cannot respond to a current invitation to negotiate the contract for one of them, the St. Johns Juvenile Correctional Facility.
Youth Services International did not return calls requesting comment.
“YSI is an organization that’s long been troubled,” said Roy Miller, president of the Children’s Campaign, an advocacy group. “This sends a real wake-up call — not only to them but to other providers.”
In November, the Huffington Post reported that “Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice has continued to award tens of millions of dollars’ worth of prison contracts to YSI, despite a civil rights investigation by the Justice Department and probes into negligence and violent conditions by authorities in at least five states. In the past year alone, the company has already received four new contracts in Florida totaling nearly $37 million.”
The investigative series resulted in a successful effort during the last legislative session by Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, and Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, to insert language in the state budget requiring the Department of Juvenile Justice to consider a contractor’s history in other states among the criteria by which the department awards its contracts.
Soto said Monday he was pleased to see the department “taking the safety and welfare of our youth more seriously,” but that he planned to return in the 2015 legislative session with a proposal that would increase the department’s number of full-time employees to allow for greater oversight of juvenile detention facilities. Soto said the measure failed in the last session due to budgetary constraints.
He added that he would be scrutinizing the department’s new contracts as well.
“No one should be doing any victory laps as long as there are facilities where youth are being abused in our system,” Soto said.
The reaction from children’s advocates was mixed as well.
“We are gratified to see DJJ take action to respond to the abuse of children in one of its privately-run facilities,” said Tania Galloni of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Incarcerated children are at risk of mistreatment, and that is why juvenile prisons should be used sparingly, if at all. While closing one facility is a good first step, there are still far too many children exposed to abuse in for-profit juvenile prisons around Florida.”
Gordon Weekes, who as Broward County’s chief assistant public defender has investigated Youth Services International facilities, said nothing had really changed.
“In the past when they’ve shut down YSI facilities, they’ve just popped back up under a different name, with the same staff, and DJJ has absolutely no problem with that,” he said.
For instance, Weekes said, after the department did not renew its contract with Youth Service International’s Thompson Academy following charges of physical and sexual abuse, “that program reconstituted itself under a different name, right down the street.” Weekes said he saw some of the same guards transporting youths to court, and they told him they still worked for Youth Services International.
He said that the youths in Department of Juvenile Justice facilities need intervention, hands-on mentoring and attention from qualified staff. But by definition, he said, a for-profit juvenile facility has an incentive to skimp on staff salaries or operating costs — even food — at the expense of the youths in its care.
“And when you cut back on both of those areas, you get low quality,” he said.
Miller of the Children’s Campaign said virtually all juvenile providers are having “huge workforce issues” due to low qualifications and low pay.
Daly, however, said the department was dealing with its providers on an individual basis — including Youth Services International and its Santa Rosa facility. The department sent technical teams to the program, shared the deficiencies they found with Youth Services International and gave the provider the chance to make good. It did not.
“The leadership at individual programs is the critical component of program success,” Daly said. “And we do see strength at most of our programs.”