CHILD WELFARE

Juvenile program workers accused of sexual misconduct

 

ysavchuk@MiamiHerald.com

One female worker has been fired and a state agency is investigating her and an intern at a Fort Lauderdale program for juvenile offenders after both women were accused of having inappropriate sexual relationships with young men in the program.

AMIkids Greater Fort Lauderdale initially suspended the staffer after executive director Luis Ceruti received an anonymous call on June 17 claiming that she was involved in a relationship with a program youth, according to the Department of Juvenile Justice, which has a contract with AMIkids.

AMIkids fired the staffer on Monday after independently learning of “previous inappropriate behavior” with a former student, who was an adult at the time of the relationship and is no longer in the program, said spokesperson Sherri Ulleg. A DJJ investigation about whether she was involved with another teen in the program is ongoing.

DJJ also is investigating allegations that an unpaid intern exchanged inappropriate texts and photos with the same young man. A staffer who glimpsed a photo on the young man’s phone told Ceruti, but he did not report the incident until more than four hours later — which left the DJJ questioning whether he acted “in a timely manner.”

The intern has been banned from the facility during the investigation, Ulleg said.

“Our first priority is the safety of our kids, so we take any allegations that would jeopardize that safety very seriously,” Ulleg said. “As soon as we were notified about these allegations, they were called into the department.”

The Broward Public Defender’s office raised similar allegations in a June 26 letter to DJJ, including a charge that a young man committed to the AMIkids program fathered the child of a female staffer when she worked at the organization’s Miami facility. Others at the Fort Lauderdale facility nicknamed the employee “cradle robber,” and administrators allegedly knew about her behavior, the letter said.

The letter also referred to explicit, nude photographs of a female worker on the cellphone of a young man in the program.

The letter did not name the staff members, and DJJ is trying to determine whether the allegations the public defender is referring to involve the same employees who are already under investigation.

If the allegations are true, “it’s inappropriate, it’s unethical and it’s borderline criminal,” said chief assistant public defender Gordon H. Weekes, Jr., who wrote the letter. “To have someone that’s placed in a position of trust taking advantage of a vulnerable child undermines other children’s ability to progress, undermines the program, undermines the success of those children that are interacting with that individual,” Weekes said.

The public defender’s office plans to ask the courts for a moratorium on placing children in AMIkids programs and will request an independent investigation, Weekes said.

“We take every allegation of wrongdoing by our staff or staff of a contracted provider very seriously,” J. Alex Kelly, chief of staff at the Department of Juvenile Justice, wrote in a letter to Weekes on Monday.

AMIkids is a nonprofit organization that operates more than 50 juvenile justice and alternative education programs in nine states. The group has 22 sites in Florida, including in Miami, North Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale. Day treatment programs, such as AMIkids Greater Fort Lauderdale, serve youth between the ages of 14 and 18 who have been found guilty of misdemeanors or lesser felonies.

Read more Broward stories from the Miami Herald

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