Florida Prisons

Fight Club: Audit documents Florida juvenile justice failures

Dark secrets of Florida’s juvenile justice system : A Miami Herald investigation

A look at the "fight club" culture inside Florida's juvenile justice system, where staffers sometimes employ harsh takedowns, ignore abuse and offer snacks as bribes for beatdowns — known as "honey-bunning."
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A look at the "fight club" culture inside Florida's juvenile justice system, where staffers sometimes employ harsh takedowns, ignore abuse and offer snacks as bribes for beatdowns — known as "honey-bunning."

Florida juvenile justice administrators sometimes fail to report the deficiencies of their privately run youth programs, and don’t always ensure breakdowns are corrected even when they are documented, says a new report by the state’s Auditor General.

The state’s top government auditor reviewed the Department of Juvenile Justice’s oversight of contracts for 10 of 54 privately run residential programs — totaling $251.3 million in state dollars — examining the department’s compliance with state laws, as well as department rules and policies. The review, which is dated January 2018, looked at agency contracts for the budget year 2016.

The audit found that:

▪  DJJ contract monitors didn’t always “complete all applicable portions” of their monitoring tools when they performed annual inspections and monitorings for facilities under contract. That means some lapses simply weren’t reported.

▪  Even when the monitoring reports are completed properly, the results aren’t always documented properly, or reported to the managers of the programs themselves, so that they can correct deficiencies. In one striking example, the report said DJJ monitors neglected to tell one provider that detainees were being denied the opportunity to report alleged abuse to the state’s child abuse hotline, a “critical” deficiency.

▪  DJJ failed to develop corrective action plans properly in eight of the 10 contracts auditors reviewed — meaning watchdogs couldn’t tell whether deficiencies had ever been corrected.

▪  Agency administrators don’t always document that their contract managers are “independent of, and had no conflict of interest in” some of the programs they were evaluating.

▪  Two of the 10 contracts involved detained youths who were considered “high risk,” requiring contract managers to review the contractor’s performance on-site. The visits never occurred, though, and the contract monitoring entailed only a “desk audit” — a review only of paperwork. The two contracts combined for a total of $36.7 million in state dollars.

If DJJ’s monitors don’t accurately report what they see and know, the audit said, “department management cannot adequately demonstrate that contractual services were provided” as required.

DJJ administrators did not dispute the Auditor General’s findings.

In a written response dated Jan. 8, DJJ Secretary Christina J. Daly wrote: “We concur with the findings and have taken appropriate steps to ensure corrective actions will, or have already been, put in place.”

The agency said Thursday that the glitches identified in the audit either already have been fixed — or soon will be.

“Every finding in this routine report has been successfully or are currently in the process of being addressed,” Daly wrote in a statement to the Herald. “DJJ appreciates collaborating with the Auditor General as we continue our mission of always finding ways to improve and best ensure the health, safety and security of the youth in our care and our hardworking staff. Through partnerships such as the one with the Auditor General, we will continue to effectively build on our successful reforms of the past seven years.”

The 21-page audit was released about three months after a Miami Herald series exposed long-standing, far-ranging lapses in oversight and accountability throughout the state’s juvenile justice system.

The Herald investigation, called Fight Club, revealed a broad range of abuses, including the hiring of youth care workers with criminal records and histories of violence and sexual misconduct, the widespread use of unnecessary and excessive force, the sexual abuse of detainees and the outsourcing of discipline by staff members — who sometimes offered teens snacks as a reward for doling out beatings. The series also highlighted a troubling history of medical neglect by officers, youth workers and even nurses assigned to youth programs.

Lax contract monitoring was a persistent theme in one of the stories reported by the Herald in October. The story examined the operation of what was called the Palm Beach Juvenile Correctional Facility, a 78-bed high-risk treatment facility in West Palm Beach. In court declarations, employees said the compound regularly went without adequate staff, that workers rarely were trained, and that administrators ordered subordinates to falsify rosters and logbooks to hide those conditions.

PalmBeachYouthAcademy 04 Fight Club EKM
Palm Beach Youth Academy, formerly known as the Palm Beach Juvenile Correctional Facility, is one compound where staff members appeared to organize and encourage fighting. Emily Michot emichot@MiamiHerald.com

A mental health case manager said in a declaration that staff phonied up “mental health files [and] treatment plans” in order to pass inspections. The behavior was part of a pattern of activities that ultimately resulted in one of the state’s largest juvenile justice contractors being driven from the state, records show.

In response to the series, the chairman of a key committee in the Florida Senate sponsored a series of significant reforms, and the package cleared the Senate Criminal Justice Committee unanimously Tuesday.

“Everything points to that we are going to get meaningful reform done,’’ Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican, said after the meeting. “There’s a new vision and an understanding we can’t stay where we are — both fiscally and outcome-based.” Brandes chairs the justice committee, and has stated his intention to change a broad range of policies governing both the state’s juvenile justice and prison systems.