Some of the youth workers were having sex with the underage boys in their care. Others were smuggling drugs, money, cellphones and porn. A top administrator reportedly sent a kid to the hospital during a violent restraint, bragging: “You gonna learn; this my program.”
But if conditions at the Highlands Youth Academy in Avon Park were not exactly conducive to the rehabilitation of delinquent youths, state juvenile justice administrators were doing little to turn things around. So, on Thursday, the Polk County sheriff arrested three former top administrators, saying the charges appeared to be the only way to clean the place up.
The Department of Juvenile Justice, Polk Sheriff Grady Judd said Friday, “did not provide checks and balances and appropriate oversight. If they did, they would have discovered what we discovered.”
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In a prepared statement Friday afternoon, DJJ said it had taken “significant steps” to improve Highlands since a youth uprising four years ago, including the installation of security cameras, increased staff-to-youth ratios, and $2 million in structural improvements.
“Any assertion that DJJ has not worked to improve this facility’s operations and services is false. We are 100% committed to youth safety and will hold anyone accountable who is not. We have not, do not, and will not tolerate staff who endanger the safety and well-being of youth placed in our care,” the statement said.
“We take every allegation of misconduct at our contracted programs very seriously and DJJ’s Inspector General’s Office is actively investigating the allegations at Highlands Youth Academy. We appreciate the efforts of our law enforcement partners to investigate incidents at Highlands Youth Academy and will work with them to bring a resolution to this matter.”
Highlands Youth Academy has a long and troubled history: On Aug. 17, 2013, a full-scale riot erupted at the compound after a disagreement over what news reports said was a basketball game bet. About 150 law officers, including a SWAT team, were needed to quell the unrest, and 61 boys were arrested, records say. A grand jury in Polk County released a blistering report on the academy on July 14, 2015, expressing “grave concerns” over DJJ’s inability to “intervene, to treat our troubled youth, while protecting the public.”
“We told them at the time, you’ve got to follow the law, appropriately report to [child abuse investigators] and you’ve got to quit doing this stuff,” Judd told the Herald Friday. “They ignored us.”
Judd said juvenile justice administrators seemed “personally offended that we were messing around in their business.”
The sheriff said he dug in his heels that and his detectives have been investigating the 80-bed mental health and drug treatment center ever since. In November 2015, detectives received tips about other “criminal activity,” including sexual abuse, juveniles being beaten by, or beating up, workers — and supervisors covering it all up, a spokeswoman said. The far-ranging investigation that followed resulted in the May 12, 2016, arrest of former youth worker Deidre Baucom on charges of sexual misconduct and contraband smuggling.
On Thursday, the department made three additional arrests: Norma Wynn, 56, of Sebring, the program’s former top administrator, on 12 charges of child neglect, failure to report and evidence tampering; Jose Sanchez, 63, of Sebring, a former assistant administrator, on eight charges of child neglect and evidence tampering; and Johnny Hart, 40, of Okaloosa County, another former assistant administrator, on six counts of child abuse, child neglect and evidence tampering.
Though he had been accused in May 2016 of slamming a youth to the floor and then grinding his elbow into the teen’s head and neck, Hart was arrested at another DJJ youth program, the Okaloosa Youth Development Center in Crestview, where he is the program administrator. The youth restrained by Hart suffered injuries to his shoulder, leg and neck, records say.
“We hauled him away from that facility in handcuffs,” Judd said said of Hart.
“The Highlands Youth Academy has been, and likely still is, a mess,” Judd said. “Since the riot in 2013, warning bells have been ringing loud and clear. About the only thing I can tell that [DJJ] has done about it has been to turn the alarm off and circle the wagons,” he added.
In arrest records the department released Friday, the department said DJJ was not alone in concealing wrongdoing.
In December 2015, detectives received an anonymous complaint about multiple female youth workers “having sexual relationships with the youthful offenders” housed at Highlands, the sheriff’s office said. One of the suspects was Deidre Baucom, a youth worker at the time. The previous March, a 16-year-old boy had described having sex with Baucom, now 27, in the bathroom of his dormitory.
The incident, however, remained hidden for months. The 16-year-old wrote a statement detailing Baucom’s misconduct, and gave it to a youth worker, and at least two other detainees alleged similar behavior. A shift supervisor later told detectives that he’d turned the witness statements over to Sanchez, one of the assistant administrators. But when a DJJ inspector asked for any records detailing Baucom’s alleged misconduct, Wynn told her there weren’t any.
“The facility found no truth to the allegations,” the inspector, Lori Hardyman, was told, an arrest affidavit said.
The day she was arrested, May 12, 2016, Baucom “admitted to having sexual intercourse” with the teen, an arrest report says. She is now on probation, and is listed as a registered sex offender in Polk County.
The sheriff’s office’s investigation also turned up “numerous concerns” about another female youth worker, records say. Around August of 2015, a colleague witnessed the worker sitting in the open doorway of a boy’s bedroom. “Her left arm was extended into the door frame, at waist level, and was making a flexing motion,” a report said. When the witness got closer, he “heard the sound of an elastic waistband snapping.”
Since the riot in 2013, warning bells have been ringing loud and clear. About the only thing I can tell that [DJJ] has done about it has been to turn the alarm off and circle the wagons.
Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd
Inside the bedroom was a detained boy. The youth later acknowledged the worker had been performing a sex act.
The witness also notified Sanchez about what he saw, and submitted an incident report. But later, Wynn told the witness’ boss “to not document the incident on any other reports, as the incident was closed,” an arrest report says.
The witness was transferred to another unit. The youth worker was returned to her post.
She was never charged “as there was not enough evidence to be able to prove it in court,” said a sheriff’s office spokeswoman, Carrie Horstman. “Although the victim was credible, it was not a prosecutable case. We believe it happened and we believe the victim,” Horstman added.
Another youth worker told detectives that she, too, was aware of the uncharged staffer’s activities, and that they should have been reported and investigated. “Instead, the witnesses were called to a meeting after the incident and were told [by an administrator] ‘if you didn’t visually see anything, don’t say anything about it’,” an arrest report said.
The youth academy “wasn’t reporting what was occurring to DJJ, and DJJ was ignoring the obvious.” Judd said. “They ignored it all.”