As state officials await the results of a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation into a Palm Beach County juvenile-detention facility, critics are calling for an end to all contracts between the Scott administration and a controversial private firm that operates the center.
Last month, Youth Services International – under fire from local elected officials – voluntarily agreed to end its contract to run the Palm Beach Juvenile Correctional Facility, a 118-bed, high-risk residential center for males ages 13 to 18.
But finding and signing a contract with a new provider will take at least until January, and the firm, commonly known as YSI, continues to operate the center.
Palm Beach County Mayor Shelley Vana, a former Democratic state lawmaker who has led efforts to oust YSI from the Palm Beach facility, and state Rep. Dave Kerner, D-Lake Worth, said they are concerned about YSI’s continued role.
“I have literally sat with guards that are employed at YSI, and they tell me to my face that the staffing is inadequate, the training is inadequate, and they don’t have the tools to do their job,” Kerner said. “And that scares me, when someone from the inside is risking retribution and discipline by coming to talk to me.”
Other allegations have included sexual abuse and a lack of medical care. YSI denies all the charges, pointing to the Palm Beach facility’s passing record with state monitors from the Department of Juvenile Justice.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has been investigating the center since May, at the request of Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Christy Daly. At the time, Daly also confirmed that two staffers at the Palm Beach facility were fired after her department investigated charges that they’d forced some inmates to fight.
“It’s the Lord of the Flies,” said Gordon Weekes, who as Broward County’s chief assistant public defender has investigated YSI facilities. “The children are used by staff members to inflict harm on other children.”
But YSI’s regional vice president, Jasir Diab, categorically denied charges that under-staffing at the Palm Beach facility contributed to violent episodes.
“YSI has managed this facility for more than eight years, and has consistently earned passing reviews from various state regulators — including 25 standard monitoring visits in the last three months,” Diab wrote in an email. “None of the Department of Juvenile Justice monitoring reports from their site visits over the past eight years in any way substantiate these unfounded allegations.”
But Vana and Weekes questioned the Department of Juvenile Justice monitoring, with Vana saying she doesn’t think the department is “capable of handling this.”
“YSI is very savvy politically, and they know the right people to speak to and the proper friends to make in Tallahassee,” Weekes said. “And as a result, they continually get a favorable look from DJJ even though they have an atrocious track record.”
Vana and Weekes alleged the Palm Beach facility passed its monitoring visits because staffers were tipped off — a charge that Department of Juvenile Justice spokeswoman Heather DiGiacomo rejected.
“The safety of the youth in our care is our top priority, and we hold ourselves to a very high standard of accountability and transparency,” DiGiacomo said. “State law requires that DJJ competitively procure, through a transparent process, private providers for residential services. Should it come to the attention of this department that a staff member was compromising the program monitoring process, we would immediately conduct an investigation and hold any bad actors accountable.”
Former Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Wansley Walters also pointed to legally binding contracts between the agency and the firm.
“Not even very vocal critics can terminate a contract because they feel like it,” said Walters, chairwoman of the Florida Children and Youth Cabinet.
Daly wrote to Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay in June, describing steps the state agency was taking to address Vana’s concerns about YSI.
“I can assure you that this department does not tolerate conduct or an environment that puts youth safety in jeopardy,” Daly wrote. “And when it comes to our attention that youth safety is compromised, DJJ staff take immediate action to investigate and hold accountable the parties responsible. At the present time, there is no indication that the overall safety of youth is in jeopardy at the Palm Beach Juvenile Correctional Facility.”
Last year, the Department of Juvenile Justice canceled YSI’s contract to run the Santa Rosa Substance Abuse Treatment Center, a 40-bed residential facility for 14- to 18-year-old boys in Northwest Florida. In a June 2014 letter to the provider, the department said the facility had seen 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.
Critics want YSI to leave the state. The firm will still operate seven Florida youth facilities after leaving the one in Palm Beach.
“They just need to sever the relationship,” said Roy Miller, president of the Children’s Campaign, an advocacy group. “YSI is an organization that has harmed Florida’s children not only in Palm Beach but in other communities.”
But YSI has no plans to leave.
“The ongoing operation of the Palm Beach facility was not part of YSI’s long-term strategic plan,” Diab wrote. “As such, the acceleration of the return of that contract to the state is a business decision.”
Asked if YSI intends to continue bidding on DJJ contracts at its other Florida locations, he replied, “Absolutely.”