As coronavirus breaches Florida juvenile justice staff, even judges kept in the dark

When a boy from Fort Lauderdale’s juvenile lockup appeared in court wearing a protective mask and exhibiting symptoms of the flu, judges and public defenders wanted to know what precautions, if any, Florida juvenile justice administrators were taking to ensure that youthful offenders have not been exposed to the deadly coronavirus.

In what has become a familiar pattern, state leaders would offer little information or comfort — even to judges who oversee juvenile court.

Then, on Sunday, the Department of Juvenile Justice confirmed that an employee of another DJJ facility in Broward — this one in Pembroke Pines — had tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by exposure to the virus.

When asked by a reporter whether youths incarcerated at the Broward Youth Treatment Center, where the employee was “confirmed positive,” had been tested, a DJJ spokeswoman refused to answer.

“We’re working with the local health department on that and will follow the guidance they provide to us,” was spokeswoman Amanda Slama’s only reply.

Later, she declined to say whether any youths in the state’s custody were given tests to rule out infection.

“The game that DJJ is playing is that, if you never test the kids, then no one ever tests positive,” said Gordon Weekes, Broward’s top assistant public defender. “If you never go about testing, you will never identify people who test positive. It’s like they’ve thrown up their hands.”

He added: “I’m really concerned when it comes to the children. We don’t have good data on how children will respond to this. We should not be allowing the population of children in state custody to be the guinea pigs.”

The state Department of Juvenile Justice is one of the largest single caregivers of Florida children.

Most of the youths in residential custody are in jail-like facilities or in dormitory-style programs. All are behind lock and key. And they are unlikely to be practicing social distancing.

Family members, lawyers and advocates want to know that the kids are safe in the midst of a global pandemic. But in recent days, they have been unable to get meaningful answers from juvenile justice administrators.

On Friday, for example, the Broward Public Defender’s Office asked the superintendent of that county’s detention center, Duviel Rosello, whether any detained children had been diagnosed with COVID-19.

The lockup superintendent never answered the question. Instead, assistant public defender Nadine Girault, who oversees the office’s juvenile program, got a terse reply from the department’s lawyer reminding her that “further communications regarding the youth in our detention center be directed to me.”

Girault’s inquiries weren’t a mere academic exercise: That same day, March 27, the employee of the Broward Youth Treatment Center tested positive for coronavirus. Girault had already complained earlier that week to Broward County’s top juvenile judge that her office was concerned about a detained youth, identified as S.D., who had appeared in court wearing a “protective mask” and showing symptoms of the highly contagious virus.

Though the public defender’s office has asked repeatedly about S.D., lawyers still do not know whether S.D. was sick with the virus — or has even been tested, Weeks, the chief assistant public defender, said.

In its prepared statement Sunday morning, DJJ said the employee is being isolated and will not return to work until it has been documented that he is no longer contagious. The program holds 27 youths, ages 13 to 18, and the parents and guardians of all of the detainees have been notified.

No additional youths will be admitted to the facility, the statement said, and all staff and youth will be monitored for “flu-like symptoms.”

DJJ, the statement said, “continues to take all necessary precautions” to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Thus far, juvenile justice administrators have not reported any confirmed cases of coronavirus infection within the ranks of children in custody.

In Jacksonville, local DJJ administrator Capt. Delmonica Harris addressed rumors that had been circulating about an infected youth in her March 26 email: “We do not have a confirmed youth that is active to coronavirus. We are merely taking precautions because he has a cold and he is isolated as a precaution and we must use precaution. That is all.”

In a later email, Harris wrote: “I just don’t want it out there that we have a [confirmed] case when we do not. Youth is not running a fever, just has cold symptoms. We have followed our protocol from HQ [headquarters] that is to isolate him, have him checked daily by medical and report the information to our [doctor] and HQ staff.”

It is unclear whether “protocol” includes testing. If it does not, it is unclear how any youth could be “confirmed” for the disease.

In Broward, the conversation about detained youths began on March 13 with a routine request to DJJ from the chair of that county’s juvenile court bench, Judge Michael J. Orlando: “We are requesting that DJJ share its intended protocols for dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic so that we, as partners with DJJ, can adapt our procedures here within the court system, if necessary.”

“It was my understanding that there was a DJJ statewide conference call with the detention superintendents yesterday wherein COVID-19 was discussed,” he added. “As of now, I have not received any information from DJJ.”

The email was shared with Broward’s chief judge, Jack Tuter.

DJJ’s secretary, Simone Marstiller, replied directly that day. The agency, she wrote, had “developed COVID-19 guidance for all facilities serving DJJ youth. This guidance included Centers for Disease Control criteria on how to assess and care for youth who are exhibiting fever and respiratory symptoms and environmental cleaning and disinfection recommendations.”

The agency had revised its screening tools for youths taken into custody by police and sheriffs’ deputies to identify children who might be infected with the disease, Marstiller wrote. DJJ had developed a visitor screening tool, and alerted parents and guardians to its requirements. And the agency asked “vendors, guests volunteers and business partners” to stay away from lockups and programs if they were experiencing flu-like symptoms or had traveled outside the United States.

Since then, DJJ has suspended all visitation at lockups and residential programs.

A week later, on March 20, Girault complained to Marstiller about the agency’s “failure to adequately address the COVID-19 health crisis for youth being housed in the Broward” lockup. The day before, she said, S.D. had been booked into the lockup. Upon his arrival, “he began to experience flu-like symptoms.”

The next day, S.D.’s lawyers “learned that the child had been taken to Broward General,” and that “some form of testing had been performed.” She added, however, that “there was no clear indication that the child was tested for COVID-19. …Rather, this child was placed in isolation in the medical unit with his temperature being taken every fifteen minutes.”

“Anyone experiencing symptoms should immediately be taken to the appropriate medical facility for COVID-19-specific testing and not merely a flu test,” Girault wrote. “No child should return to the facility until it is determined that they have not been infected with the virus.” Anyone already exposed, she added, should “be tested and isolated.”

Girault also asked that S.D. be “immediately” tested.

Three days later, it appears S.D. was still at the lockup. And there was still no confirmation he had been tested.

On March 23, Girault wrote Marstiller again, expressing “grave concerns with regard to the health and safety” of [youths]in the Broward lockup. On March 22, she said, S.D. had been taken to the Broward County Courthouse wearing a “protective mask,” though he did not have a scheduled court hearing. S.D. was released to his guardian.

“Even more concerning is the conflict of information disseminated by the department, Girault wrote. Both the youth’s guardian and the judge presiding over his case were told S.D. had tested negative for coronavirus, Girault wrote. “However, the superintendent [of the lockup] advised me that the youth did not qualify for COVID-19 testing.”

“The department’s continuous failure to adequately address the COVID-19 health crisis poses a threat to the youth being housed in the [lockup], as well as the surrounding public,” Girault wrote.

Less than an hour later, Tuter, the chief judge, who was still part of the email thread, wrote in large letters: “Nadine, are you advising they are bringing juveniles for detention hearings with exposure to the virus?”

Girault’s response: “Unfortunately, I am unable to answer if any juveniles have been exposed to the virus. DJJ has provided conflicting information as to the testing conducted for the virus.”

She added: “The child, who was experiencing flu-like symptoms, was transported to the court on two occasions, and was housed at the detention center for a few days. DJJ has yet to indicate if the child was tested for the virus.”

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