When juvenile justice administrators looked into allegations of sexual misconduct by a staffer and an intern at a Broward County youth program, efforts to hold them accountable hit an unexpected roadblock.
Turns out that interns at AMIkids of Greater Fort Lauderdale didn’t have to sign any sort of agreement pledging not to have intimate relations with current youths in the program.
As for the staff member, a counselor, there was no policy that barred staff from having sex with youths formerly in the program.
The too-cozy conduct that had been reported was, therefore, not a violation of any rules. The intern’s behavior, a report said, resulted from a “policy failure.” And the counselor was “exonerated” because the program had no evidence the sexual relationship began while the youth was at AMIkids.
The investigations kicked off in June 2013, when the Department of Juvenile Justice’s inspector general was told that a youth camp staffer confiscated a detainee’s contraband cellphone and discovered an “inappropriate picture” of a female intern. The youth acknowledged he’d been swapping racy photos and text messages with the intern for about two weeks. In some of the photos, she was fully or partially naked.
A week later, DJJ was told another eyebrow-raising story: A female counselor at the marine institute had carried on a sexual relationship with a teen formerly of the program. It later was revealed that she had given birth to his child.
Later that month, the Broward Public Defender’s Office’s top juvenile attorney, Gordon Weekes, wrote to DJJ’s then-secretary, Wansley Walters, about the counselor, including the detail that she was known in the facility as the “cradle robber.” The counselor, he wrote, had been seen “sitting on the lap of male youths while secreted in administrative offices” — an allegation DJJ did not sustain.
In an interview with a DJJ inspector on Dec. 16, 2013, the boy with the explicit pictures said he had been involved in an “intimate sexual relationship” with the intern that ended when the photos were found on the phone. The boy, who was allowed by program rules to return home at night and on the weekends, said the two would arrange by phone or email to have the intern pick him up and drive him to a La Quinta Inn near her college campus.
A report on the investigation, dated April 21, 2014, concluded that the intern and the youth “were involved in an inappropriate relationship outside of the program.”
But because AMIkids didn’t make interns agree in writing to refrain from such activity, the agency found no rule was broken. DJJ closed the case, chalking it up to a “policy failure.”
As for the counselor, she admitted that her child was fathered by a former AMIkids youth. “However,” a report said, “there is no evidence to prove the relationship began while [he] was still in the program or under DJJ supervision.” The report added: “Program policies do not specifically prohibit relationships between staff and former youths.”
Investigators closed the case by referring the matter back to AMI with instructions to tweak the policies, which it did. The counselor was terminated.
Seven months later, she applied for a job as a caseworker for a Miami child welfare agency, the Center for Family and Child Enrichment, which performed a reference check with AMIkids.
The program gave her effusive praise — ranking her a 10 out of a possible 10.
Would they hire the counselor again? Certainly, AMI said.
This narrative is part of Tales from the Front, a collection of short stories about Florida's juvenile justice system. The Miami Herald investigated the state's youth corrections system following the 2015 beating death of a Miami-Dade detainee. Read the full "Fight Club" investigative series here.