In the coming weeks, the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice will be putting the finishing touches on a newly created office where juveniles and their families can raise concerns. That’s just one of the reforms the head of DJJ recently told a group of lawmakers, who had some suggestions of their own to address abuses within the system outlined in a Miami Herald investigative series.
As she’s said in the past, Florida Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Christy Daly says she’s not denying what was reported in the Miami Herald articles. But, at the same time, she adds, “I will not let a newspaper series overshadow the accomplishments that have been made.”
Some of those accomplishments include seeing a 52 percent decline in the number of girls arrested. And, Daly says in the six years, since she and her predecessor Wansley Walters were in office, there have been some big changes, like therapy dog programs and making the juvenile facility rooms seem more “homey.”
“And, also simply even changing what these kids wear,” she added. “Back in 2011, kids were still wearing the orange jumpsuits. Now, they wear khakis and polo shirts, and we are really trying to focus on breeding our young people to become responsible, productive adults.”
Plus, Daly says what was outlined in the Miami Herald is nothing new and has been reported by different news outlets when they occurred and her agency has done a lot to hold the people accountable.
Still, lawmakers, like now former Sen. Jeff Clemens (D-Lake Worth), say they appreciate the reporting organized into one comprehensive document that the legislature could see.
“And, I don’t think we should forget some of these incidences were…you know, when you’re talking about someone being beaten and stomped by 12 boys or sexual assaulted or hit with a broomstick,” he said, at the time. “I’ve got four of five pages of incidents that are listed. So, it isn’t a one off incident that happened once. It’s something that’s happened across these facilities.”
Lawmakers have also continually been caught up on the controversial issue of privatization.
Juvenile detention centers are state-run. They are where a juvenile may be awaiting a court date or placement in a residential program.
But, residential facilities are 100 percent privatized and house juveniles required by a judge to serve a sentence and undergo treatment.
Sen. Anitere Flores (R-Miami) recently questioned Daly about how the facilities are rated.
“And, one of the things I think is concerning is that in some of the places where these incidents had occurred, they were rated as something that would not be reflective of a horrible incident had occurred there,” she said, at the time. “So, if you could talk to us a little about the rating system, and is it different for a public provider or a private provider? And, does there need to be a change either within the agency or by the legislature to ensure that an agency where a horrible incident is happening is not getting rated as something that is not reflective of that?”
While some lawmakers want to back away from the privatized structure, others like Sen. Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala) told Daly they like what’s in place.
“One of the things that I like about the structure is you’re not in a position that you have to defend a provider,” he said. “If you are the provider, then you have to defend what you did or didn’t do. But, you could actually help us in this posture with this structure review what they’re doing and take action against them, including closing them or canceling their contract ultimately.”
Other ideas proposed by lawmakers include putting a more independent party in the facility, like a school resource officer, or having live cameras in all DJJ facilities.
As for Daly, she says there are some things like lawmakers can do. They include giving probation and detention officers a 10 percent pay raise so DJJ can have better and more experienced staff who know how to work in such a sensitive environment. Daly also has reforms she’s in the process of implementing, like the creation of the “Office of Youth and Family Advocacy.”
“This is something that I’m extremely excited about,” she said. “The director of this office will be a direct report to me, and we will be working in the coming weeks to solidify the formal focus of this office. My vision is to have an office, which will amplify the voices of children served by this agency and the voices of their family. The advocates will be an additional set of eyes and ears in programs with the sole purpose of identifying any unmet need of children and their families. This office will also be focused on increasing our family engagement.”
Meanwhile, some Democratic lawmakers have already filed bills allowing for surprise inspections of DJJ facilities, just as legislators can do in Florida’s adult correctional facilities.
For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.