It started as a fight between several girls in a locked psychiatric facility in Pembroke Pines over a friend being “jumped,” police said. By the time officers arrived at the state-licensed Citrus Center for Adolescent Treatment Service, close to 30 young patients were screaming, throwing soap on the floor, pounding on the walls and brawling with each other and up to seven staff members, according to police reports.
The April 28 incident ended with an officer punching a mentally ill 14-year-old girl in state custody in the face. The previously publicized punch, caught on surveillance tape, and allegations of broader misuse of restraints at the facility have prompted a Rep. Katie A. Edwards, D-Plantation, to ask a legislative committee to look into conditions at the institution.
“I was appalled when I saw the surveillance video,” Edwards said. “You have a young lady who’s in there and has behavioral or mental health issues. I don’t see how it’s rehabilitating her to have an adult law enforcement officer punch her in the face.”
Edwards wants the House Health & Human Services Committee to review rules about the application of force, seclusion and physical and chemical restraints at state-licensed psychiatric institutions for young people.
The April episode led Broward Assistant Public Defender Gordon H. Weekes Jr. to accuse the facility of excessively applying physical and chemical restraints to youth at the psychiatric home, which treats children and adolescents with mental disorders and severe emotional disturbances.
The Department of Children & Families, the Agency for Health Care Administration, the Broward Sheriff’s Office and Pembroke Pines police are all investigating the allegations.
Officer Joseph Cabrera, 24, “implemented 2-3 empty hand strikes” to the 14-year-old’s face and chest after she attempted to punch him in the face and struck his chest, which “caused my uniform to come undone and caused my uniform pens to be launched into the brawl,” a police incident report said.
Another officer then pepper sprayed her, and “I was forced to implement a final single empty hand strike to…[the girl’s] face in order to defend myself,” Cabrera wrote.
The girl was pepper sprayed again after she began kicking the rear window of a police car, police reports said.
She later told Cabrera she hit him “in order to be arrested” so she could get out of the facility, his report said.
The 14-year-old was charged with resisting arrest with violence, disorderly conduct and criminal mischief, according to Weekes, who is defending her.
“The officer’s actions were clearly excessive, inappropriate and potentially criminal,” Weekes wrote in a letter to DCF Interim Secretary Esther Jacobo on Aug. 5. The girl was an orphan in DCF custody who suffered from a severe mental illness and a history of abuse, Weekes said.
Officers used force consistent with department policy in responding to a “riot” at the facility, said Pembroke Pines Capt. Al Xiques.
Six other female patients, ranging in age from 13 to 17, were arrested after the April incident. They face charges including battery on a law enforcement officer, aiding and abetting a riot and enticing and affray, Xiques said.
All of the girls were returned to the care of Citrus Health Network, which runs the ACHA-licensed facility.
Xiques said that there were some injuries, although police reports said no injuries were reported.
“I want to know what is happening to allow these things to take place in the first instance. What precipitated what they may call a riot, an uprising? I want to see what’s happening that gives rise to these incidents that law enforcement has to respond to,” Edwards said.