A group of Broward County public defenders is working to remove all 58 delinquent youngters from a privately run juvenile detention facility they claim is rife with abuses. That could lead to the facility to be shut down.
A court filing disclosed this week also accuses Florida juvenile-justice officials of lax oversight and asks the court to appoint an independent monitor to investigate the Thompson Youth Academy, a 154-bed “moderate risk” residential center in Pembroke Pines.
Chief Assistant Public Defender Gordon Weekes asked the court to order the children in the center to be released, and claimed conditions are so bad they violate the Constitution.
Weekes told CBS4’s Peter D’Oench that “The courts should not wait until a child is seriously injured. This place needs a complete overhaul from top to bottom. The courts did not send youngsters to a facility like this so that they can be abused. What is important first and foremost is that children be safe. And we need an active monitor for this program with access to the children 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.”
“It amounts to a Lord of the Flies type scenario within the program where children are trying to survive,” Weekes said.
The abuse allegations include reports that staffers award “bounties” to youngsters who physically abuse other children; fist fights are commonplace; staffers smoke marijuana openly in front of detained youth; and youth are routinely subjected to unnecessary takedowns.
A mother whose teenage son is the Thompson Youth Academy told D’Oench, “They (the youngsters) are fighting each other and when they’re fighting, the staff is not protecting them. At the same time, they’re not doing what they are supposed to do, to stop the fighting. They are choking the kids. They’re slamming them on the ground. That’s not how you stop fights. You are supposed to separate kids.”
The mother did not wanted to be identified or show all of her face in order to protect her son’s identity. But two Assistant Public Defenders were at her interview with D’Oench and confirmed that her son is at the facility.
She also spoke to D’Oench about the bounties.
“With the bounties, it’s with the staff that doesn’t like the children. They have other children beat them up. That’s sad. That’s not right because when you send a child to a place like that, you send them to be safe.”
She also said she believes one guard she met used marijuana in the facility.
“When I walked in, he smelled like marijuana,” she said. “I went to say something but then I was just shaking my head.”
“Do you think the place should be shut down?” D’Oench asked the mother.
“Yes, I do,” she said.
“Why do you say that?” D’Oench asked.
“Because it’s not a professional place. The staff is not professional. They argue with each other.”
D’Oench went inside the Academy Friday to try to speak with the Director. He was told that he was not on the property. The Director did not return calls to CBS4.
The motion asked the court for an order to quickly take depositions of “essential witnesses,” including former and current Thompson employees and state oversight officials. It also asked for a court order to prevent Thompson Academy employees from knowing, at this point, the identities of juveniles who have complained about alleged abuses. Weekes said he wants the order to protect the minors from possible intimidation by custodians.
The petition also claimed food is in such short supply, and of such poor quality, that it has become “a form of currency” used by detainees. Detainees reportedly place bets on camp activities using food, sometimes leading to fights and disturbances.
Samadhi Jones of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice told D’Oench, “We can not comment because of the pending litigation and can not say how long this matter will take.” By telephone from Tallahassee, Jones told D’Oench the Department had “no opinion” as to whether the facility should be shut down or not.
Allegations against the facility have surfaced before.
In October of 2010, a 15-year-old youngster from the facaility asked a Judge to free him, claiming he was sexually assaulted by a youth counselor on two occasions—once in a laundry room at the school and once on a visit to a doctor’s office.
When the boy told the Director of the facility about the incidents, he was reportedly told to “keep his mouth shut.” At the time, his mother said she was never notified about the alleged abuse. The state said the boy had a history of “multiple arrests” and would make up stories.
Sarasota-based Youth Services International operates the youth prison on the campus of a state psychiatric hospital in Pembroke Pines under a $14.8 million, three-year contract with the Department of Juvenile Justice. The company runs eight other youth programs throughout Florida, including campuses in West Palm Beach, Ocala, St. Augustine and Greenville.
Thompson Academy has been the subject of numerous complaints from parents and children’s advocates. In October 2010, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging camp employees “choked and slammed children head-first into concrete walls for infractions as minor as failing to stand up on command.” Detained children, the suit added, slept on dirty floors in hot rooms lacking air conditioning.
The suit was resolved last May with a sealed settlement but in his petition in Broward Circuit Court, Weekes said the youth camp remains a threat to the health and safety of children who are ordered to live there.