By Ralph De La Cruz
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
The U.S. Department of Justice on Friday released its long-anticipated report on the North Florida Youth Detention Center, a facility for boys and young men ages 13 to 21 that was closed during the summer because of repeated problems.
The report by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division was simply damning. It found a pattern of abuse and neglect that, if it occurred in someone’s home rather than a state facility, would certainly result in parents being arrested and custody of the children being taken from them.
It found that staff often used excessive force on youngsters, locked them up in isolation for long periods of time, and showed a “laissez-faire attitude” toward suicidal youth. Youngsters were constantly and unconstitutionally frisked (more than 10 times a day). And they were not provided with needed rehabilitative services.
What makes the report’s findings even more reprehensible is that these were not issues that just surfaced yesterday.
Hundreds of men — some in their 70s — have previously testified that, as far back as the 1950s, youngsters were being beaten with leather straps inside a white building at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna. Dozier and the Jackson Juvenile Offender Center make up the NFYDC, located about an hour’s drive west of Tallahassee.
In the 1980s, Dozier victims filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the state. But as often happens in child abuse claims against authority figures, there were issues with the statute of limitation.
And yet, the Justice Department investigation (which was started in 2010) suggests that despite those previous claims and all the negative publicity surrounding Dozier, little changed over the past half-century except the techniques used to bully, harass and intimidate.
Investigators found that one youth was held face-down on the floor for 48 minutes and then placed in mechanical restraints for another three hours and 17 minutes. Another was kept in isolation for two weeks, and just after being released, was sent back into isolation.
The report noted that staff members — who on average made less than $12 an hour — lacked training. And that the state did not provide adequate oversight of the poorly trained and underpaid staff.
Problem kids, overwhelmed staff and inadequate oversight — a recipe for abuse. And it may still be happening in some of the state’s institutions.
“These problems may well persist without detection or correction in other juvenile facilities operating under the same policies and procedures,” the report said.
That’s a claim Florida Department of Juvenile Justice spokesman C.J. Drake disputes.
“The problems that plagued Dozier do not exist elsewhere in the state,” Drake told the Florida Times-Union.
When the state closed the facility in June, Juvenile Justice officials first said the closure was part of $14.3 million in spending cuts. The department now says Dozier and 23 residential treatment programs were closed over the past three years due to performance issues.