- Responses -
Abuse and deaths:
Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ)
Videotapes of DJJ beatings:
Martin Lee Anderson - Died - Justin Caldwell - Beaten
Over the past decade nine kids have died under the care of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) system. There have been dozens of reports of child abuse in their programs. Beatings have been caught on video yet often no one is held accountable. The state has a zero-tolerance policy for kids. But that same policy doesn’t seem to apply to the staff members who abuse them.
Parents complain their kids are abused and the abuse is covered up. It has been said that videos go missing, or cameras are turned off. It has been reported that kids are kept in the system longer than their original sentences. In some cases what should have been a one-year sentence turns into a five-year or longer sentence and kids are, according to their parents, unjustifiably spending their entire adolescence locked behind closed doors.
Parents have voiced concerns that their kids are not receiving a proper education and that the care they receive is sub-standard. Judges adjudicate kids into the Florida DJJ system for what parents are saying are unjust reasons.
For instance, Suléma said, “When I voiced my concerns about the process of DJJ’s handling of children, this created a conflict between the judge and myself. As a result, I don’t feel the judge was able to remain unbiased in my daughter’s case. My daughter was placed into a medium-risk facility, Dove Academy, for a 9-month stay when she was originally sentenced to a 3-6 month stay - all for two petty violations of probation for a non-violent offence. She’s been put into a program with girls who have done far worse things than my daughter has and I do not feel the environment is what my daughter needed.”
Christopher Sholly entered the DJJ system when he was 13 for what was a typical schoolyard scuffle and was not released until he was 18. During his stay at Greenville Hills and Dozier School for Boys his mother, Dawn Chase, said, “Christopher suffered serious forms of abuse including a broken arm, a broken nose, fractures throughout his skull, and mental abuse”. Christopher spent his entire adolescence in DJJ, was accused of battery on a staff, and was sentenced to one year in a state prison. He was beaten near-daily during his stay and said he had to fight for his life.
Justin Caldwell, too, entered the DJJ system when he was 13, and he too was abused during his stay at Dozier School for Boys. He is nearly 19 and still in their clutches. His father, Mark Caldwell, said, “During Justin’s nearly six-year stint at two Florida DJJ facilities my son suffered a broken nose, a broken arm, back problems, staples in his forehead, and bruising. Some of the abuse was caught on video.”
Justin, too, was accused of battery on a staff. He was found guilty today by a jury that seemed to have difficulties understanding they had three choices - (1) find Justin not guilty; (2) find Justin guilty of simple battery, a misdemeanor; or (3) find Justin guilty of battery on a detention facility staff, a felony with a sentence of up to five years in state prison. Sentencing has been scheduled for November 27th.
It was distressing to see the three witnesses, youth from Dozier where Justin was abused, brought into the courtroom in hand-cuffs and ankle shackles. “That was not necessary,” Mark said.
While it would be impossible to address all issues of abuse and neglect in the Florida DJJ system in this article, we have chosen to elaborate on the deaths, issues of child abuse and neglect, and abuse of power.
Following are several examples of these concerns. They are addressed in more detail later in this Report.
Last April two kids were allegedly choked by a staff member at the Manatee Adolescent Treatment Services (MATS). According to an Inspector General’s Report the abuse inflicted on these boys was substantiated.
Just last year serious concerns about Northeast Florida DJJ facilities were made public when the Florida Times Union issued their investigative report. Among concerns cited were safety issues, excessive and unnecessary use of force on youth by staff, unreported incidents of abuse, workers falsifying log books, failing to perform preliminary background checks on 9 out of 10 workers hired to work with kids, pregnant girls who did not receive prenatal care, staff accused of giving drugs to kids, kids were not screened for suicide risk, deplorable building conditions, a knife cabinet wasn’t secured, and the list went on.
In 2001 the Florida Times Union reported there were problems at the Elaine Gordon Treatment Center. There were more than 50 incidents of suicide attempts, repeated sexual misconduct, and other dangerous activities reported from 1999 through the end of the year 2000 as “due to poor supervision”, according to state records.
Late last year the Jackson County Floridan reported that a 29-year-old female teacher's aide was charged with a sex offense involving a 16-year-old male housed at Dozier School for Boys. She was arrested and charged with unlawful sexual activity with a minor.
Earlier this year a Press Release was released by the SEIU, stating that the UK’s biggest security firm Group 4 Securicor (G4S) was caught letting killers, rapists and terror suspects go unchecked. This is the same company that runs a number of DJJ programs for kids. The UK scrutinized eight US juvenile facilities; six were in Florida.
Again earlier this year the Polk County Democrat reported a juvenile correctional officer was arrested for having sex with a 15-year old he met online. He was charged with two felony counts of lewd battery. He was employed by a company, Group 4 Securicor (G4S), under the auspices of the Florida DJJ to work as a correctional officer at the Polk Correctional Facility in Polk City.
Just last month the Florida Times Union reported two workers were arrested for crimes involving youth, three workers were found having romantic relationships with youth, staff sold drugs to youth in the facility, staff forged a student’s signature and refused to allow the student to call the abuse hotline when he was hit in the head by staff, a mental health therapist working at the facility was fired after students reported him for viewing pornography on his office computer while he was on duty, state investigators substantiated nine out of ten misconduct claims - all at DJJ’s Hasting facility also run by G4S.
In 2004 Orlando Sentinal wrote an in-depth article following their investigation into the amount of time kids were spending in DJJ facilities and how often they were transferred. The problems families were faced with in 2004 still occur today in 2007. It was noted that kids can behave and do things right and still have their sentences extended. Once DJJ has care and custody of the kids they can decide where they will say and for how long. Parents and advocates are concerned but DJJ officials don’t think 3-4 transfers or extended stays are bad. It’s all a part of their treatment, they said.
The State of Florida and the people cannot continue to turn a blind eye. With two deaths in the system just last year, and reports of abuse continuing to mount, it is evident this problem is not going away.
According to DJJ’s website approximately 15,000 youth are court-ordered into mandatory day treatment or residential treatment programs each year. Another 52,000 are estimated to be temporarily judicially ordered into one of the state’s 26 regional juvenile detention centers each year.
It is time for change. If DJJ cannot manage to control their system, if they cannot control the emotional and physical abuse inflicted on children, if they cannot control the deaths of children who are under their care, then we believe it is time our Federal Government step in and do something to protect children in the state of Florida.
It is time families speak out so they can be heard. And it is time for those who were abused in the system to have their voices heard. You have a voice, do not be silenced.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is listening – they are preparing a report of findings of abuse and deaths in residential treatment programs – both state and private. It is time for our voices to be heard now as their report is slated to be completed in the next few months.
Deaths: Unnecessary tragedies
Click here for a chart detailing the facts about nine kids (that we are aware of) who have died in the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) system since 1998 because no one believed them. Staff thought some of these children were “faking” and “playing possum”. It appears DJJ staff thought it was acceptable to beat, restrain, and ignore them.
In most cases no one was held accountable for these deaths. If parents did to their kids what DJJ staff has done to these kids, they would most likely be arrested. So why is the state of Florida allowed to continue abusing kids and why do the people in charge of the kids continue to get away with it?
These nine deaths span eight years. DJJ should have learned from the first suicide death in 1998. Instead, within six years seven children were dead and just last year another two died.
Others continue to be abused and harmed in this failed system. We are asking why?
These children could still be alive today had they received the proper care and attention they deserved. In our country it is incomprehensible to think this is going on in programs that are state-run and state-funded. I ask - who is watching out for these kids?
Last February the beating of Justin Caldwell was caught on videotape. One need not wonder – when watching Justin’s body thrown to the ground by detention staff, towel after towel used to wipe his blood from the floor - how these tragedies can occur.
Following the death of a boy in the Florida DJJ system one mother recalled her neighbor saying, “If he were still alive he’d probably just grow up to be a criminal.” She responded, “Maybe a criminal, or maybe the guy that repairs your cable TV.”
Many of the kids in the Florida DJJ system are kids who are struggling with the challenges of adolescence. They need help and guidance, not to be beaten and abused.
All of the deaths mentioned above were unnecessary tragedies. Tragedies we hope will not be repeated.
Child abuse and neglect
Justin Caldwell, abused, falsely accused
Justin Caldwell has been in the clutches of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) his entire adolescence. Today at the age of 18 Justin sits in the Jackson County Correctional Facility awaiting trial and facing time in an adult prison on charges his father says are false.
Justin Caldwell is nearly 19 years old. When he was 13 he went through a rough time, much like other adolescents. But most kids are able to work through their issues with the help and guidance of their parents. Mark Caldwell, Justin’s dad, and Justin didn’t get that chance.
At the age of 13 Justin was sentenced by DJJ to 12-18 months in a residential treatment center. Justin is almost 19 and is still in custody.
Christopher Sholly and Justin Caldwell were detained in the Florida DJJ system. They suffered very similar forms of abuse – Christopher suffered from a broken nose, a broken arm, head injuries, and mental abuse – so did Justin.
Justin was abused twice in one day last February at Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida. In both incidents Justin was allegedly thrown to the floor, sat on by staff, and his head was repeatedly beaten against the floor. The second incident sent Justin to the hospital. Part of the second beating and the wiping up of Justin’s blood was caught on video.
The staff members involved were Officers James Wooden and Alvin Speights.
News reports indicated DJJ Officer Speights and former Regional Service Administrator, John Tallon were fired. DJJ Secretary of Residential Services, Rex Uberman, said he was moving his office to the school for boys, stating, "We do have a range of operational problems at Dozier and the whole program needs to go through a rebirth, but you also can't lose sight of holding individual people accountable for their actions."
So if Justin was beaten and the beating was caught on video, if staff were fired as a result, why does Justin sit in the adult system awaiting trial and facing time in prison on a charge of battery on a detention staff?
According to Mark Caldwell, “three days after my son was beaten in February, one of Justin’s abusers filed false charges against him to exonerate himself and to shift the blame on Justin. While this staff member is still employed at DJJ Justin awaits his trial and faces time in adult prison. It is costing my family $15,000 to defend these false charges.”
Caldwell said, “My son has spent the past six years including birthdays, Christmases, Thanksgivings, and all other holidays in this failed system. Like other boys in these facilities, he is not allowed to watch the news or read newspapers. These kids are not even allowed to leave the facility. They live behind walls that are surrounded by chain-linked fences and razor wire.”
He went on to say, “Justin has been mentally and physically abused and has witnessed the abuse of other youth by staff in these facilities.”
Mark Caldwell, frustrated by the ongoing challenges brought to his family by DJJ and the years lost with his son, concluded, “This is what you define as Justice … Florida is a Zero-Tolerance state when it comes to mistakes our children make. Perhaps Florida should have a Zero-Tolerance policy when it comes to the abuses inflicted on children by the staff DJJ hires inside its facilities.”
Mark ended with, “I want my son home for Thanksgiving. I love my son.”
Will justice be served on Wednesday, November 7th? Will Justin’s voice be heard as he tells about the abuse that has been inflicted upon him in the Florida DJJ system for the past five years, his entire adolescence? Will the judge and jury listen to the testimony of eleven witnesses who saw what happened to Justin that morning? Will they be impartial?
Justin, like Christopher Sholly, was accused of battery on a staff. And like Christopher, Justin was found guilty today by a jury that seemed to have difficulties understanding they had three choices - (1) find Justin not guilty; (2) find Justin guilty of simple battery, a misdemeanor; or (3) find Justin guilty of battery on a detention facility staff, a felony with a sentence of up to five years in state prison. Sentencing has been scheduled for November 27th.
Mark is concerned for the safety of his son. He remembers all too well what Christopher went through during his one-year sentence in a state prison. Christopher was beaten and abused on a near-daily basis and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result.
Caldwell said, "I still believe my son is innocent. Mark said it was distressing to see the three witnesses, youth from Dozier where Justin was abused, brought into the courtroom in hand-cuffs and ankle shackles. “That was not necessary,” he concluded.
Christopher Sholly – Ages 13-18 – Physically and mentally abused at DJJ
Christopher’s story is much like Justin’s. He was put into the Florida DJJ system at the age of 13 and never made it out until he was almost 18.
Christopher spent his entire adolescence locked behind closed doors. His mother, Dawn Chase, said, “Christopher was severely abused. The abuse caused Christopher to live in daily fear of his life. He often thought of suicide so he could be released from the daily hell he was living in. He felt being dead might be better than living in fear for his life. His words were, ‘they are going to kill me, so I might as well do it for them, at least I won’t hurt as bad as if they did it.’”
During his stay there Chase said, “Chris suffered from a broken arm (an upper dorsal known as Salter 1 fracture in the growth plate of the arm), a broken nose, a number of hairline fractures throughout his skull, mental abuse, and physical abuse, while he was in the DJJ system.”
She said Christopher and others were often denied the use of the toilet and that they were forced to urinate and defecate on themselves. When this occurred, staff would beat them and make them wash their clothing in ice cold water in a five gallon bucket. Then after the clothes were washed, the Staff would pour that same dirty water over their heads.
Dawn went on to say that DJJ hired a staff member, Rodney Baynard, who was working at Greenville Hills Academy while Chris was there.
It was later proven in the Investigator General’s Annual Report dated October 1, 2004, that Baynard lied on his employment application stating that he did not have any past criminal history when in fact he did for aggravated assault and battery.
Dawn said, “The private contracting company and DJJ failed to do a truth background test on Rodney Baynard, and the excuse I received was that ‘he slipped through the cracks.’ Rodney Baynard had also previously broken two other youth’s arms prior to breaking Christopher’s arm.”
According to his mother, Christopher continues to suffer pain in both arms and shoulders as a result of the numerous abusive restraints he received on a near daily basis during his stay at DJJ. Christopher’s arms literally pop out of joint at the shoulders. He now suffers from post traumatic stress disorder, is on medication for this condition, and continues to have nightmares about the abuse he endured. He has attempted suicide twice since his release on December 23, 2005. Christopher’s family is suing the state.
April 2007 - DJJ staff Christopher Williams: Substantiated - Excessive force
On April 15, 2007, Justice4Kids, a Florida advocacy group for children incarcerated in the DJJ system, filed a report of suspected abuse against Corporal Christopher Williams of the Manatee Adolescent Treatment Services (MATS) facility, a DJJ contracted program for 35 moderate-risk males ages 13-18.
The original complaint received by Justice4Kids indicated, “Williams choked [name omitted for anonymity] out till [sec] he was on conscience [sec], his eyes were rolled back in his head and he started floppy [sec] around like a fish, when he came to Williams did this again for a total of 4 times. He also did this to [name omitted for anonymity]. The witnesses tried to turn the cameras so that it would be caught on tape. The police were called and a report was done. They were told they were not going to report this to DJJ. All these kids are scared of this man but they want something done…”
Justice4Kids alleged Williams choked two youth and that one passed out. On April 18, 2007, the complaint was accepted by the OIG for investigation. As noted on page 9 of the Inspector General’s Report, it was determined and substantiated that staff member Christopher Williams used excessive force on both youth.
Northwest Florida DJJ – safety issues, falsified records, improper staff screening
According to a June 9, 2006, article, Juvenile facilities rated among state's worst, written by Deidre Conner, there were safety problems and other issues in Northeast Florida DJJ facilities for adjudicated youth. She noted that according to audits seven of the region’s eight centers were minimal or failing. The one exception was a facility that had not had a thorough state review since 2005.
The article also noted that the state Department of Juvenile Justice's Bureau of Quality Assurance auditors visited the Duval Halfway House, known in the past as the Duval Juvenile Residential Facility. They called the condition of the bedrooms and bathrooms "deplorable." They found rotting boards, holes in the wall and reports of rats on the property.
The department gave acceptable ratings to facilities with problems. The program where Martin Lee Anderson died was given a commendable rating in its last audit in 2004.
Problems noted in eight* Northeast Florida DJJ facilities:
- Workers falsified log books
- Nine in 10 workers reviewed were hired before the program received preliminary background checks
- Youth were improperly punished
- Health and safety was jeopardized because of structural problems in one of their buildings
- Youth were not screened for suicide risk
- One youth with suicide concerns was wandering the facility alone
- Wires hanging from the ceiling and bathrooms reeked of urine
- Another building was challenged inside and out with rotting wood and holes in the wall
- A knife cabinet was unsecured in one of the kitchens
- Debris littered the grounds including glass, old batteries, and inoperable lawnmowers
- Insufficient staff checks with youth seen on video running in and out of their rooms and into other youth’s rooms and roaming the hallways
- Incidents of abuse were unreported
- Pregnant girls did not get prenatal care
- One program did not log incident reports
- Videotape showed staff falsified log books and falsified a medical file
- One worker was accused of taking seven youths out into the courtyard and giving them marijuana, Ecstasy and Xanax (the worker, who was dismissed, was already under investigation after reports of taking 13 youths outside to supervise them alone)
- Unkempt facilities
- Another program did not complete suicide assessments or follow-up assessments of suicide risk
- Improper staff conduct
- Use of excessive/unnecessary force
- Multiple youth-on-youth assaults
- Continuous problems with youth having contraband
- Staff cursed at youths and acted unprofessionally
- Youths complained staff did not break up fights fast enough
- Toilets that were not in good working order
* St. Johns Juvenile Correctional Facility, Duval Halfway House, Nassau Juvenile Residential Facility, White Foundation Family Homes, STEP (Outward Bound), TigerSHOP, Impact Halfway House, and Hastings Youth Academy.
Elaine Gordon Treatment Center – sexual misconduct, attempted suicides
In 2001 the Florida Times Union reported there were problems at the Elaine Gordon Treatment Center – the same year Justin was sent there. According to the article, teenagers were having sex in a bathroom and there were four attempted suicides by one teenager between June and November the previous year and all but one of those linked to improper supervision. While the company claimed they were “good at what they do”, more than 50 incidents of suicide attempts, repeated sexual misconduct, and other dangerous activities were reported from 1999 through the end of the year 2000 as “due to poor supervision”, according to state records.
Dozier School for Boys – Sexual misconduct of staff
In November 2006 the Jackson County Floridan reported that a 29-year-old female teacher's aide was charged with a sex offense involving a 16-year-old male housed at Dozier School for Boys, and that according to the Marianna Police Department Sheretha Lavone Paramore was arrested and charged with unlawful sexual activity with a minor.
Group 4 Securicor (G4S) – parent company of Florida DJJ programs scandal
According to a March 24, 2007, Press Release released by the SEIU, “the U.K.'s biggest security firm Group 4 Securicor -- and parent company of the U.S. government's largest supplier of private guards, Wackenhut -- has been caught letting killers, rapists and terror suspects go unchecked in a scandal that extends beyond the U.K. and into U.S. juvenile detention centers.” This is the same company that employed Streeter in the below-mentioned incident. The UK scrutinized eight US juvenile facilities; six were in Florida:
- Avon Park Youth Academy, Avon Psark, FL
- Cypress Creek Juvenile Offender Correctional Center, Lecanto, FL
- Hastings Youth Academy, Hasting, FL
- Okeechobee Juvenile Offender Correctional Facility, Okeechobee, FL
- Polk Juvenile Correctional Facility, Polk City, FL
- Sago Palm Academy, Pahokee, FL
Polk Correctional Facility – Sexual misconduct of staff employed by G4S
According to an April 2007 article in the Polk County Democrat, 34-year old Irish Streeter, a Polk County juvenile correctional officer, was arrested for having sex with a 15-year old he met online. He was charged with two felony counts of lewd battery. He was employed by a company, Group 4 Securicor, under the auspices of the Florida DJJ to work as a correctional officer at the Polk Correctional Facility in Polk City.
Hastings Youth Academy (G4S) – sexual misconduct, criminal activity, assault
According to an October 20, 2007, article in the Florida Times Union, Hastings troubled-youth facility has troubles of its own, Hastings has had its share of problems lately. Among those were two workers arrested for crimes involving youth at the facility, three workers found having romantic relationships with the youth, state investigators were called to the facility nine times and substantiated seven misconduct claims, and four youth escaped during a six-month period late 2006.
It is run by the private company, G4S. G4S acknowledges there are problems but promises change.
Some of the problems reported were:
- Two workers were arrested for crimes involving youths at the facility
- Three workers were found to be having romantic relationships with youths
- State inspectors were called to the facility nine times and substantiated seven misconduct claims; others are pending
- Four youths escaped during that time, all in a six-month period in late 2006
- Staffers selling drugs to youth in the facility
- Marijuana and other drugs were found
- Mental-health therapist Robert L. Harris Jr., was terminated after he was reported by students as viewing pornography on his office computer while on duty
- Staff forged a student’s signature of a youth and refused to allow him to call the abuse hotline after he was hit in the head by a radio thrown by a youth-care worker in September 2006 – the youth-care worker, Ramon Powell, and the shift supervisor
- Tyrone Wilkerson were terminated Dec. 26
- Youth-care worker Kevin Dewayne Ford was charged with aggravated assault after a surveillance tape showed him pulling a knife from his pocket and flicking it open during an argument with a 16-year-old inmate.
Florida DJJ Secretary Walt McNeil said “I will tell you that we're concerned - we're very concerned - about ... Hastings … We will not stand for any [employee], whether it's a DJJ employee or a contractor employee, mistreating the children."
Group 4 Securicor was also in charge of the Cypress Creek Juvenile Offender Corrections Center where Willie Lawrence Durden, III died in 2005. Workers thought he was playing a prank by lying motionless and unresponsive - and didn't immediately call 911.
According to the Jacksonville article, Cynthia Terrell, the staff who was fired after videotapes showed her and witnesses told of her engaging in sexual touching with a youth during class. She wasn't charged with a crime because the youth was 16 and was the one touching her, according to St. Johns County Sheriff's Office spokesman Chuck Mulligan. Some staff make as little as $8 per hour.
ABUSE OF POWER
Extended sentences, too many transfers
An in-depth investigation into the amount of time kids are spending in the Florida DJJ system was performed late in December 2004, according to a December 19, 2004, article Youth offenders get lost in the shuffle, written by Rene Stutzman and Katy Miller.
That was nearly three years ago and families are facing the same issues today in 2007. It was noted that kids can behave and do things right and still have their sentences extended. It’s easy, once DJJ has the kids under their care and custody they can choose where and how long the child will stay. And if a parent complains it seems their stay is extended ever longer.
This is a problem for kids who are forced to spend precious developmental years locked up in a broken system where reports of child abuse, unfair practices, and deaths continue to stream in.
Justin Caldwell, Christopher Sholly, and Marena are good examples of abuse of power. Justin and Chris spent their entire adolescence locked up. These are good kids who should have been home with their families.
As a rule these programs are not for kids who are “bad”. Many kids are sent because they have emotional problems and need help. The Florida DJJ system touts itself for providing that help to the state’s youth. But many parents would challenge that.
The executive director of a nonprofit group of lawyers who work for children’s rights calls the agency’s system of juvenile transfers “a major injustice.” “You can wind up spending years in what should be a three-month program,” she said.
But officials at DJJ don’t think there’s anything wrong with what they’re doing. In fact, a couple of the officials were quoted as saying, “It’s not about time. It’s about treatment.” And, “Is it good public policy to transfer a kid three or four times? You know, if it’s necessary to treat that kid, I don’t see that it’s a bad thing.” His boss who had been on the job six months said, “I don’t see any problems here.”
Miami-Dade County Circuit Judge Scott M. Bernstein called the number of transfers surprising and said she would investigate this further, was going to take this to her statewide panel, and begin her own investigation.
So DJJ officials don’t think 3-4 transfers or extended stays are bad. But does a kid get the kind of treatment he needs when he’s locked up for 5 years or more for a simple school-yard fight or for needing treatment for past abuse he suffered? Does a girl who’s excelling in school, working, and looking forward to going to college benefit from being locked up with girls who have far worse and deeper issues than she has?
These kids have families who want them home. They are not forgotten kids, they are not unwanted kids. Parents cry themselves to sleep. They often advocate for their kids and the stress can cause anxiety disorders. They miss their kids. And they want them home.
As you will see in this case, abuse of power is not confined to the juvenile facilities and often originates in the courtroom.
At the age of 16 Marena became a victim of circumstances. Her naïveness landed her in the Florida DJJ system. Suléma, Marena’s mother, laments, “They told me they were here for me. If I ever needed their help I could call on them.”
Marena, a typical teenager, made a mistake. She was not a threat to herself or anyone else. Nor was she a habitual offender. Marena’s mother, Suléma, said, “Marena was going through adolescent growing pains. She was previously a model child and I knew that with enough time and attention she would return to the foundation we had established for her.”
Suléma worked with her daughter. Things improved when Marena took the necessary steps to correct her behavior.
Despite these improvements, Marena was not immune from making common adolescent mistakes. While Marena was improving in many areas she continued to go through a rebellious stage with her mother. Her mother had emphasized to Marena the importance of letting her know where she was at all times, something Marena did not always adhere to. When, one afternoon, Marena failed to inform her mother where she was Suléma opted to exercise what she believed would be a wake-up call for Marena. She contacted the Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s deputy to have Marena picked up to teach her a difficult but valuable lesson.
Suléma had no idea what she was getting herself, or her daughter, into.
Marena was picked up, taken into custody, and was released back to her mother. Her behavior improved. But as a result of the call Suléma had made to the sheriff’s office, and without any pre-warning, she received a summons in the mail ordering her and Marena to appear in court on short notice. Suléma’s attempts to reach out to the DJJ for support had backfired.
Suléma stated her attempts to contact the probation officer resulted in, “If I were you, I would make every effort to appear.” He gave her no assistance or counsel. Because Suléma’s employer was unwilling to give her time off from work, she could not make it to the hearing. As a result a warrant was issued for both Marena’s and Suléma’s arrest.
When Suléma was picked up she voiced her concern regarding leaving her ten and thirteen year old children home alone. Suléma said, “The sheriff dismissed my concerns and took both Marena and myself into custody where we spent the next four nights in jail. DJJ did nothing to help us and my kids were left unattended.” Suléma was able to reach a friend later that evening to take care of her children. But what would have happened, she asked, if she was unable to reach her?
Four days later mother and daughter were released. Over the course of the following year Marena steadily improved, her mother said. Her grades and attendance in school improved, she secured part-time employment where she was appreciated by her management and co-workers, and was due to graduate soon. She had plans to go to college the following fall, thanks to a trust fund provided to her by her grandparents.
Suléma said, “Marena met all of her sanctions except classes requiring financial payment. She had one violation of her probation and one truancy violation. The judge chose to consider the truancy a second violation of probation and had Marena ordered into a moderate-risk facility. During the court hearing Suléma was told the program ran from three to six months, based on the child’s behavior.
Suléma voiced her concerns about the generic process employed in the handling of individual children in the DJJ system. Raising these concerns seemed to anger the judge. As a result, Suléma said, “I don’t feel the judge was able to remain unbiased in my daughter’s case.”
According to Suléma there was no reasoning with this judge. “She was determined my child was going to be put into the DJJ system, regardless of the fact she had made great strides and was doing well. Her teachers and the dean of students wrote letters, people rallied for Marena. But to no avail.”
Suléma remembers her first visit with her daughter at the Dove Academy for Girls. “This was not the building so proudly and prominently displayed on DJJ's website. I was shocked when I pulled up. This was much worse than anything I had imagined. On a dusty lot, roughly one-fourth the size of a football field was a rectangular chain link fence. Within the confines of the perimeter of this fence sat a cluster of old, mildewed portable buildings, completely unidentifiable if not for the plastic banner hanging on the fence identifying this ‘facility’ as the DOVE ‘academy’”, she said.
Suléma and her younger daughter were escorted to Marena’s trailer, forced to leave all their belongings. She said, “I thought I would be sick. I found myself standing in the middle of those trailers, looking at nothing but a dusty, dirt lot, smaller than my own backyard with a single basketball net and a picnic table. I walked to Marena's trailer and she immediately fell into my arms and began weeping. I could no longer hold back the tears, and we stood together, hugging one another tightly, until I could stand the tears no more.”
“My daughter was forced to share a room with girls who had far more serious offenses,” she said. Not an environment Suléma felt was beneficial in any way to her daughter.
Marena has been in the DJJ Dove Academy for six months with exemplary behavior. She should have long been home by now, according to her original sentence of three to six months based on her behavior.
However, DJJ placed her in what is considered a vocational program where despite her original offense or her good behavior, she must complete the vocational program before she can be released. This program runs a minimum of nine months.
Suléma resolved not to dwell on the surroundings and to try to bring some happiness to her daughter. She said it was difficult to walk that line... between giving her daughter hope and setting her up for disappointment. “I told her that I would NEVER give up, no matter how dismal things looked.”
Approximately three months after Marena arrived at Dove the girls were moved to a newer, nicer building. “Marena never needed to be sent to this facility”, her mother said. “She was slated to start college last fall and had made great strides. This is a gross injustice.”
One mother said, “The Florida DJJ system has the potential to individually address the actual needs and short-comings of each child. Yet the children are treated generically when punishment is met. The punishment should fit the crime and should meet the needs of the children. The potential and circumstances of each child are not taken into consideration when they are being sentenced.”
A good reminder is what Mark Caldwell, Justin’s father, said, “This is what you define as Justice … Florida is a Zero-Tolerance state when it comes to mistakes our children make. Perhaps Florida should have a Zero-Tolerance policy when it comes to the abuses inflicted on children by the staff DJJ hires inside its facilities.”
It is evident by the recent cases documented that this is not yesterday’s problem and that abuse, neglect, and deaths continue to mount in the Florida DJJ system. How long will it take for the state of Florida to listen and put a system in place to protect these youth?
We the people, have questions. Will the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) provide answers?
As noted on the http://www.justice4kids.org/ website, Walt McNeil, Secretary of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, has urged anyone with knowledge of abuse or neglect in the DJJ system to report it to him. You can reach him at (850) 210-3815 or via e-mail Walter.McNeil@djj.state.fl.us.
Websites & Links
Letter to to staff
Congressman Miller's Opening Statements
GAO Preliminary Report
Comprehensive List of Deaths