A punch that a Pembroke Pines police officer threw at a mentally ill 14-year-old girl in state custody has sparked an investigation of conditions at a local youth psychiatric facility.
During the April 28 incident, partially caught on surveillance video, a police officer punched the girl in the face after the girl appeared to swing at the officer. Then, another officer pepper sprayed the girl and a third sat on top of her while she had an asthma attack, according to Broward Assistant Public Defender Gordon H. Weekes Jr.
Officers used appropriate force and were responding to a riot at the state-licensed Citrus Center for Adolescent Treatment Service, said Pembroke Pines Police Captain Al Xiques.
The girl was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest with violence, and criminal mischief, Weekes said. Six other juvenile residents of the facility were also arrested and face charges that include battery on a law enforcement officer, aiding and abetting a riot and enticing and affray, according to police.
Weekes, who is defending the 14-year-old, argues officers used excessive force that exacerbated the teenagers mental illness and revived the trauma of past abuse.
While investigating her case, Weekes said he found a broader pattern of disturbing conditions at the facility, a locked residence for youth with serious emotional and mental disorders. In a letter he sent to interim secretary Esther Jacobo at the state Department of Children & Families on Monday, Weekes alleged that staff excessively used physical and chemical restraints to subdue detained girls, even for minor infractions.
On an almost daily basis, staff tied girls arms and legs to a cot in an isolated room and injected them with a chemical substance that left them unconscious for hours, Weekes said. They awoke groggy and unable to recall what happened after they were subdued, he said. Sometimes these restraints were applied for speaking too loudly, getting out of a chair too quickly or being confrontational, he said.
The practice of subduing minor girls with chemical restraints is so common and pervasive that the patients in the facility have dubbed it the booty-juice. This mental health facility is simply tying-down and knocking-out little girls who behave in accordance with their mental illness, Weekes wrote in the letter.
Most troubling and abhorrent, is the fact that the repeated use of restraining sedation has exacerbated the occurrence of disruptive behavior because it is believed that several girls intentionally engage in misbehavior in order to receive the chemical sedative booty-juice so they can get high, Weekes wrote.
DCF is investigating allegations of abuse and mistreatment at the facility along with the Agency for Health Care Administration and the Broward Sheriffs Office, according to Whitney Ray, DCFs press secretary. DCF is also looking into a call its hotline received Thursday, alleging abuse at the facility, Ray said.
ACHA is reviewing the allegations and our authority, according to press secretary Shelisha Coleman.
Since March 2008, ACHA received 16 complaints about the facility, agency records show. It last visited the facility July 9 after receiving a complaint and found no deficiencies.
The Pembroke Pines Police Department learned of the allegations Thursday and is also working with DCF to investigate, Xiques said.
Close to 8 p.m. on April 28, Pembroke Pines officers responded to a call about a riot at the center on South Palm Drive, run by the Citrus Health Network. Officers called for additional backup twice, including support from Miramar police.
Around 30 youth were fighting each other and beating up about six staff members, and some threw soap and water on the floor to make officers slip, Xiques said. There were injuries, the department said, although they were unable to specify what they were.
One of the girls who was arrested later wrote an apology letter to police, Xiques added.
She said the reason she had fought officers and was telling others to fight police when they arrived was so she could be arrested and taken out of there, he said.