The sudden death of an apparently healthy Panama City teen at a military-style youth lockup prompted a prominent South Florida lawmaker to demand Tuesday that the controversial programs be shut down, while state officials say they will reexamine the policies that allow the use of physical force against children in state care.
Martin Lee Anderson, 14, who stopped breathing less than three hours after being admitted to the Bay County Sheriff's boot camp last week, is the most recent Florida child to die in the custody of state youth corrections officials under questionable circumstances.
"These places are terrible, they have been shown to be unsuccessful, and they should be shut down, " said state Rep. Gustavo "Gus" Barreiro, a Miami Beach Republican who chairs the House Criminal Justice Appropriations Committee, and heads a separate committee that is investigating the treatment of youth in state care. "I think they should be eliminated."
The Department of Juvenile Justice, which contracts with counties to operate the boot camps, will review all the sheriff's offices' policies, said Cynthia Lorenzo, a DJJ spokeswoman in Tallahassee. Lorenzo declined to discuss the case.
Said Rep. Dan Gelber, a Miami Beach Democrat also on the oversight committee: "How is it that we are incapable of simply preserving the lives we are entrusted with?"
The initial report of the Bay County Medical Examiner suggests Martin did not die from injury or physical trauma. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement confirmed Tuesday that it is investigating the incident, which was captured on the camp's security cameras.
Martin's parents, Robert Anderson and Gina Jones, dispute the medical examiner's findings. They believe their son was restrained, pushed up against a wall and beaten by drill instructors until he stopped breathing. On Tuesday, they filed documents indicating they intend to sue the state and Bay County officials for negligence.
"They shouldn't get away with this, " Jones said. "They threw him around like a little rag doll."
Martin, six-foot-one and 140 pounds, was a healthy, rangy teen who played basketball for his middle school team, Jones said. She and Anderson traveled from Panama City to Pensacola to be with their son Thursday as he was being transported to the trauma ward at Sacred Heart Hospital.
As they stood Friday morning over the limp body of their son, linked to life by the artificial breath of a respirator, they decided to let him go.
"The nurse said his kidneys and liver were gone, " recalled Anderson, Martin's father. "I didn't want to do it but, just looking at him, lying on that bed, he was doing nothing but suffering."
Anderson remembers the time: 1:42 a.m. Jones remembers her last look at her son: His nose was swollen, his lip cut, his cheek scraped. Blood had dripped from his nose to his ears and dried, she said.
Martin had been on a respirator since sometime between 9 and 10 a.m. the day before. He was on life support for 15 hours. He had been at the boot camp less than three, booked for violating his probation during a grand-theft case. "He didn't even get a chance to eat lunch, " Jones said.
At the center of the controversy are the state's six juvenile justice boot camps, all run by county sheriff's offices. The closest to South Florida are in Collier and Martin counties. Social scientists say the military camps simply don't work, failing to prevent youth from committing new crimes. Still, critics say state sheriffs have used their political muscle to keep the camps running.