Although guards at a Panama City boot camp routinely roughed up teenagers for minor infractions, state auditors for years praised the facility for its record-keeping, nursing care and use of physical force, rating the camp's performance "commendable."
The camp did so well in its 2004 inspection that it wasn't inspected at all last year - despite 180 questionable use-of-force reports since January 2003. Guards physically punished youngsters for smiling, smirking, failing to complete exercises or other so-called "insolent" behaviors, records show.
The "quality assurance" audits, mandated by state law to ensure the facilities are safe and properly run, portray the Bay County Sheriff's Office Boot Camp as a Grade A operation. That changed Jan. 6, when 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson, charged with stealing his grandmother's car for a joyride, died after boot camp guards punched, kneed and choked him - all captured on videotape.
A Miami Herald review of audits conducted by the Department of Juvenile Justice's Quality Assurance division found that inspectors for years failed to detect that guards were routinely violating state policies that banned use of force - takedowns, chokeholds, pressure-point restraints - except as a last resort.
NO ONE CHARGED
While oversight was breaking down, physical force incidents escalated, rising each year until they doubled in 2005. No guards have been charged or fired. A special prosecutor appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush and the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tallahassee are investigating Martin's death. The Bay County boot camp was shut down in the aftermath.
Time and again, auditors consistently found the camp to be in full compliance with regulations. Among the findings in the 2004 report:
- Inspectors judged the camp's exercise policies to be "superior" and "administered in a safe, fair and consistent manner, " adding that the boys would not be required to exercise beyond their "endurance levels."
"Interviews with five youth indicated that staff discuss with them their endurance levels and improvements, " the report said. "All youth indicated that they are in better shape now than when they arrived at the camp."
Martin collapsed after complaining that he could no longer exercise, prompting guards to manhandle him for 40 minutes as the boot camp nurse stood by. The camp's own use-of-force report quoted Martin saying he "was tired and couldn't breathe good enough to run any more."
"There is a written policy, " the report said, "that has been signed and dated within this review period that outlines all the requirements" of the use-of-force standard. "Whenever there is a physical intervention, a [use-of-force] report is written."
"The reports were well documented and completed on the day of the incident, " the report said.
Previous audits at Bay County were even more cursory.
In 2002 and 2003, DJJ conducted one-day inspections of the camp. The reason: The camp had scored high marks in its 2001 inspection, allowing it to avoid a full review in subsequent years.
While audits were failing to find serious problems, force reports jumped from 27 in 2003 to 41 in 2004 to 99 last year. Cynthia Lorenzo, a spokeswoman for the Department of Juvenile Justice, which oversees the state's five boot camps, declined to discuss the agency's inspection program. She has previously said that "the agency is committed to the safety and well being of youths in our care . . . We need to do better, we can do better and we will do more."
But agency records show that as late as last October - three months before Martin died - top DJJ administrators knew that audits were failing to detect problems at DJJ facilities.
"There have been a series of situations where a program got a . . . high QA [quality assurance] score but something very serious then happened, " DJJ Quality Assurance Chief John Criswell wrote his staff after a Central Florida youth died in custody. "Are we too focused on paper and not enough on kids?"
Criswell said DJJ facilities were receiving high marks from inspectors at programs where a child eventually died and a mentally-retarded teenager was allegedly raped.
"With the [legislative] session coming up, I think you can see why there may be questions, " Criswell wrote to other quality assurance administrators. "Should we be doing more to follow up on negative responses to our surveys? Are there other changes that may alert us when bad things are about to happen?"
The next day, one DJJ quality assurance staffer, Mike Marino, defended the system in an e-mail: "I don't think we can get away from the file reviews, as this is the main proof of something being done or not."
The discrepancies between the inspection reports and conditions at DJJ's programs did not go unnoticed by a legislative watchdog group - the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability - which said in December 2003 that DJJ inspections bore "little correlation with incidents such as escape or injury."
"Some program monitors are not always following up on indications of problems, " the report said. "When program monitors investigate complaints against programs, they should not only research the specific allegation but should also determine whether the problem is more widespread."
Agency records show that the boot camp's DJJ program manager, Andy Anderson, received a copy by fax of all 180 use of force reports. The Miami Herald has repeatedly asked DJJ under the state's public records law whether Anderson ever alerted supervisors to the pattern of excessive force in Panama City.
Agency spokeswoman Lorenzo said DJJ is still looking for any alerts from Anderson, who would not comment.
One expert who has studied juvenile justice oversight in Florida and other states has repeatedly told DJJ administrators and Florida lawmakers that agency oversight efforts are flawed.
"Neither the current [quality assurance] program nor the research systems have served any type of diagnostic function whatsoever, " said Thomas Blomberg, dean of Florida State University's College of Criminology and Criminal Justice. "The accountability system is not holding programs accountable, and it's really more damning than that."