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.
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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.
And while DJJ administrators have launched many reforms in recent years to better protect children, the six boot camps were exempted from the reforms under pressure from sheriffs.
In July 2004, Gov. Jeb Bush and newly appointed DJJ Secretary Anthony Schembri announced an overhaul of the agency's policies on physical restraints. The result, the Youth Rights Policy, banned several types of restraints.
"You can't teach compassion by modeling callousness, " Schembri said at the time.
The policy banned the use of several aggressive tactics such as shoulder locks, wristlocks and restraint chairs, which had been linked to injuries among detained youths. Months earlier, a former DJJ secretary had forbidden the use of the so-called hammerlock, which had caused a spate of broken arms.
In 2000, a willowy, 66-pound 12-year-old boy named Michael Wiltsie died after being placed in a "full-body restraint" by a counselor at a now-closed Eckerd wilderness camp in Ocala. Like Martin, the youngster had complained to counselors that he could not breathe, a state death review said.
But DJJ officials exempted boot camps from the new regulations, Barreiro told The Miami Herald, as sheriffs successfully argued they needed more latitude than traditional programs when dealing with difficult youth. Barreiro, who has operated youth programs, calls the exemption a mistake.
The boot camps "should abide by the same procedures, " he said. The reforms, he said, "were written for the safety of the kids, after there were dire consequences" from earlier restraints.
A darling of law enforcement agencies, boot camps came into vogue a decade or so ago as youth corrections officials were searching for new ways to stanch a wave of violent juvenile crime.
Social scientists researched the model rigorously, professors say, and studies concluded almost uniformly that paramilitary youth programs were not effective in deterring crime.
DJJ's records show about 62 percent of the youth who graduate from one of the state's boot camps are arrested again for some type of offense - a recidivism rate experts call very high. Other programs for moderate-risk kids, such as wilderness camps, also have high re-arrest rates, but some, such as halfway houses, are much lower.
"Boot camps don't work, " said Aaron McNeece, dean of the Florida State University College of Social Work, which has done some of the research.
Most boot camps were modeled after an earlier program called Scared Straight, which arranged for troubled kids to experience life within adult jails or prisons, said Frank Orlando, a 21-year Broward circuit judge who served more than a decade in juvenile court. The Scared Straight programs were mostly discontinued after a host of abuses were reported.
"There is no way to scare or frighten or work a child at those boot camps" into changing their behavior, Orlando said. Such tactics, he added, might end up "killing him - or making him a more dangerous person."
"The only reform for boot camps as they are operated in Florida right now is to eliminate them, " added Orlando, who is director of the Center for the Study of Youth Policy at the Nova Southeastern University Law Center in Davie.
Still, said Orlando and McNeece, boot camps persist in Florida and elsewhere across the country because powerful law enforcement groups insist than can be effective in curbing youth crime.
"Just because it doesn't work doesn't mean people are not going to do it, " McNeece said. "There is a lot of investment in those programs - political investment as well as financial - and people have a stake in somebody sooner or later saying it's a great program."