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Law exempts camps from DCF probes, April 20, 2006

Though a surveillance video played around the country shows guards punching, kneeing and choking Martin Lee Anderson before he stopped breathing at a Panama City boot camp, Florida child abuse investigators are not looking into whether the boy died from abuse or neglect.

That's because both child welfare and juvenile justice administrators are interpreting one sentence in state law as granting Florida's five juvenile boot camps an exemption to requirements that all suspected or alleged child abuse be reported to the Department of Children & Families' abuse hotline.

The boot camps are the only programs under contract with the Department of Juvenile Justice that are not required to report suspected abuse to DCF's hotline. They also are the only DJJ programs that are allowed to investigate abuse claims themselves.

POLICY CRITIQUED

Chelly Schembera, a retired Florida social service administrator with extensive child welfare, juvenile justice and inspector general experience during 27 years with DCF, called the exemption "a very bad public policy."

"This is a license to commit police brutality at will, " she said.

Ray J. Thomlison, dean of the Schools of Social Work, Policy and Management at Florida International University, which has trained hundreds of DCF abuse investigators, called the exemption "extraordinary."

"I would not have expected them to be exempt from reporting child abuse. None of the other agencies are, " he said. "Obviously, they should be held to the same standards as the rest of the community."

Spokesmen for both DCF and DJJ refused to discuss the issue of child-abuse reporting at the boot camps.

Cynthia Lorenzo, DJJ's spokeswoman, said it is DCF's responsibility to interpret state statutes and decide which abuse calls to accept for investigation.

"DCF may choose not to accept the calls, " Lorenzo said. "DCF makes the [decision] on what calls to accept and from whom."

DCF spokesman Tim Bottcher said he could not render what he called an "advisory opinion" about state statutes, or interpret the meaning of a state law. "Beyond that, " Bottcher said, "this is a matter of two investigations, law enforcement investigations. For those reasons, we decline to comment."

A spokeswoman for the Bay County Sheriff's Office, which ran the now-shuttered boot camp in Panama City where Martin Anderson was sent, declined to comment about whether it reported any instances of abuse to DCF, though records obtained by The Miami Herald showed that the boot camp was reporting abuse allegations strictly to DJJ, not the child welfare agency.

Martin's death is being investigated by a special prosecutor appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush, Mark Ober, the state attorney of Hillsborough County. The FBI and U.S. Attorney's Office, based in Tallahassee, also are investigating whether boot camp guards violated the youth's civil rights.

Under Florida law, a variety of caregivers - including foster parents, private school teachers, daycare centers, babysitters, relatives and group home operators - can be held accountable for abusing or neglecting children.

EXEMPTIONS

But the statute adds: "For the purpose of [DCF] investigative jurisdiction, this definition does not include law enforcement officers, or employees of municipal or county detention facilities or the Department of Corrections, while acting in an official capacity."

DJJ's policy and procedures manual, called Quality Assurance, also requires all residential programs to "immediately [report] first to the Florida Abuse Hotline and then second to the [DJJ] Office of Inspector General hotline. Law enforcement reports directly and only to the OIG Hotline."

DJJ operates - mostly under contract with private companies - close to 125 residential corrections programs across the state, 26 of them in southern Florida. In southern Florida, only the Martin County Sheriff's Office's Sheriff's Training and Respect academy, or STAR, would be exempt from state child abuse reporting laws under DJJ's policy.

Still, the Martin boot camp - which is expected to close in coming weeks due to budget shortfalls - reports all allegations to the DCF abuse hotline, said Capt. Lloyd Jones, the camp's program director.

Jones acknowledges there has been "some confusion" over whether the camp is required to notify DCF of an abuse allegation. But, he added, the Sheriff's Office has opted to seek the additional monitoring a call to DCF affords.

"Our policy says here in Martin County we call DCF, " Jones said. "We wrote out our own policy." The camp also has posters throughout the facility, in both English and Spanish, telling youths how to reach the abuse line.

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, who runs a boot camp, said his staff also notifies both DCF and DJJ whenever an abuse allegation arises. "We have both the DJJ and DCF hotline numbers posted prominently in the squad bays and hallway areas, " Judd said. "I am confident these children in our custody are looked after appropriately."

LEGISLATIVE OVERSIGHT

Retired Miami-Dade Juvenile Judge Tom Petersen, who taught juvenile justice for 10 years at the University of Miami, said the abuse reporting exemption was designed specifically to shield police officers from child abuse allegations when they use force to arrest or subdue juvenile offenders.

"Clearly, the Legislature wasn't thinking about boot camps, " said Petersen. "They were thinking about a situation in which a police officer tackles a kid who's running away from a stolen car. It was not meant to cover a law enforcement officer acting as a child custodian at a boot camp." "This is a glib, self-serving definition, " Petersen said, "and the result of that glib, self-serving definition is the death of that young man."

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