The Miami Herald's Carol Marbin Miller continues her investigation into Florida's broken juvenile justice system:
It took just two months for Chris W. Jeffries to get into trouble at his new job as a counselor for delinquent teens with drug or behavior problems. A week ago, police charged him with child abuse on allegations that he slugged a 16-year-old boy in the jaw at the Pembroke Pines program where he worked.
Administrators at the Broward Youth Treatment Center hired him on Oct. 9, despite an ominous sign that Jeffries might have an anger management problem — just like many of the kids he'd be supervising. In June 2016, police say, he pulled a gun on his roommate and threatened to kill her after she demanded that he move out of the home they shared. Jeffries' roommate later changed her mind and declined to cooperate with prosecutors, who dropped the case.
It's the exact sort of red flag that is supposed to trigger an alarm under a stringent new hiring policy designed to weed out youth workers with the kind of criminal backgrounds or unsavory work histories likely to render them unfit to work with hard-to-manage teenagers. The new procedures were developed eight months ago in response to a Miami Herald investigation that documented widespread excessive force and other misconduct within Department of Juvenile Justice lockups and residential programs.
But there's a hole in the state's new policy: While the beefed-up screening governs how DJJ hires officers for its 21 detention centers, it holds no sway over the private contractors who run the state's 53 residential programs for youths already adjudicated delinquent. The Broward Youth Treatment Center is one such facility.
Though DJJ has the authority to write new contracts that require providers to reform their hiring practices, administrators have yet to hold their contractors to the same standards they've set for themselves. As a consequence, emotionally troubled teens were left in the care of a man who later acknowledged settling his differences with a closed fist.
In a prepared statement, DJJ Secretary Christina K. Daly said that, although Jeffries' criminal history didn't disqualify him from employment under state law, "it is always the department's expectation that hiring managers use the utmost common sense and discretion in hiring potential employees that place as their number one priority the safety and security of youth."
"The department continues to be in constant communication with private providers to collaboratively improve hiring practices. Our contracted private providers have been voluntarily working with the department on revisions to the background screening policy and procedures, to include hiring requirements, for all contract provider owners, operators, employees and program volunteers, as well as department employees and volunteers," Daly said.
Neither DJJ nor its contractors may hire job candidates whose criminal histories include a conviction for what's called a "disqualifying" offense, such as sexual assault or felony battery. Under DJJ's new policy, administrators also are expected to consider criminal histories as a whole, and purge prospective employees who technically are acceptable but who might pose a risk to vulnerable kids. DJJ's Inspector General's Office performs the background screenings, and provides the results to its contractors.