Juvenile offenders caught in middle as agencies squabble over funding

Rafael Olmeda Contact Reporter
South Florida Sun Sentinel


Minors accused of crimes might be shortchanged by a funding dispute that keeps Broward County’s Juvenile Assessment Center operating overnight, according to lawyers and other officials.

The Children’s Services Council has been providing $357,000 a year in funding for the center to keep it fully operational 24 hours a day.

The Broward Sheriff’s Office uses the money to fund six administrative deputies who process youthful offenders at the center, located on Southwest 4th Avenue, south of State Road 84 in Fort Lauderdale.

But two years ago, the Children’s Services Council notified the Sheriff’s Office that it would no longer provide the overnight funding.

Without it, the center would no longer remain open 24 hours — arrested children would have to wait until after their court appearances, losing crucial time to start providing services they need.

“The default is to send them into a detention facility, which may be counterproductive and which many of them don’t need,” said Assistant Public Defender Gordon Weekes, who oversees defense for accused juveniles.

The Broward Sheriff’s Office has not given any indication that it will pick up the expense after this year — the matter is expected to come up at Broward’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Board meeting in three weeks.

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On a typical night, some accused offenders are sent home to their parents, while others go to a juvenile detention center where they wait for their first court appearance.

In either case, the youths are ordered to see a judge the next day. The screening that takes place before the court appearance is crucial to deciding whether the child is a budding criminal or a victim of a larger problem, said Weekes.

“If they are not seen before they are taken in front of a judge, then the court doesn’t have the information it needs to make an informed decision,” Weekes said. “When it comes to children you want to make sure you have a proper set of eyes and ears to make sure we all know what we need to know.”

Proper screening tells law enforcement whether they are dealing with someone who has a substance abuse problem or a mental health issue, or whether the person is the victim of human trafficking, Weekes said.

“Prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges should know what they’re dealing with before the defendant shows up in court,” he said.

The Juvenile Assessment Center is funded by multiple sources, including the school district, the hospital district, the sheriff’s office and the Children’s Services Council. The Broward State Attorney’s Office chips in for a prosecutor to make quick decisions about whether to treat an arrested teenager as a criminal or, in some cases, a patient in need of treatment.

State funding was slashed in 2000, leaving the local groups to decide how to make the center, located south of State Road 84 and north of Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, viable to provide services no matter when youths are taken into custody by law enforcement.

The Children’s Services Council decided at that time to chip in, temporarily, $750,000 for overnight funding, said CSC President Cindy Arenberg Seltzer.

“We were created for the purpose of prevention services,” she said of her agency. “Ideally we should be funding the programs that keep kids from having a brush with the law at all.”

As the years went on, the number of minors served declined, as did the council’s contribution to overnight funding.

In the fiscal year from 2005 to 2006, 7,696 youths were arrested and processed at the center. In 2017, the number was 3,422. The breakdown of those arrested after midnight or before 8 a.m. was not available.

Among those who are kept out of jail and sent to diversion programs, the results are impressive, said Seltzer. Close to 90 percent do not re-offend within the crucial first year after their original arrests.

A statement from the Broward Sheriff’s Office was not available Monday.