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Federal investigation confirms abuse at Dozier, suggests children in danger at other facilities

The U.S. Department of Justice has blasted the state for failing to properly treat and protect children who were housed at the now-shuttered Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, Florida's first and oldest state-run reform school that closed in June after 111 years of operation.

The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice's failure to oversee the program and prevent children from being abused and neglected suggests other programs have similar issues, according to the report by the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, released late Friday.

"Although Dozier and JJOC (the Jackson Juvenile Offender Center on Dozier's campus) are now shuttered, these problems persist due to the weaknesses in the state's oversight system and from a correspondent lack of training and supervision," the report said. "Our findings remain relevant to the conditions of confinement for the youth confined in Florida's remaining juvenile justice facilities."

The Justice Department's investigation, announced in 2010 to then-Gov. Charlie Crist, showed "reasonable cause to believe that the state of Florida was engaged in a pattern or practice of failing to have proper measures of accountability that led to serious deficiencies."

The Justice Department alleged many instances in which the state violated the constitutional rights of the boys, ages 13 to 21, confined to Dozier, and said the state must take immediate measures to "assess the full extent of its failed oversight" to protect children at its other facilities. The state must also strengthen its oversight processes by implementing a more rigorous system of hiring, training and accountability, the report said.

DJJ spokesman C.J. Drake said Florida has already implemented a number of reforms and has seen a dramatic reduction in the use of physical techniques to control children. He also said the state has closed or substantially reduced 23 residential programs statewide since 2008 because of performance issues.

"That's because we proactively identify problems in our residential programs and take swift corrective action," Drake said. "Residential programs that cannot implement and sustain corrective actions are closed."

DJJ Secretary Wansley Walters, who took over the department in January, was not available to comment on the report, Drake said.

The Department of Justice found:

• Staff used excessive force on youths, including choking and mechanical restraints. It documented incidents caught on tape in which guards violently pushed youths to the ground, and struck and choked youths. Staff unlawfully shackled youths with mechanical restraints as a first response to youths who did not respond to verbal commands. One youth was held face-down on the floor for 48 minutes and placed in mechanical restrains for an additional three hours and 17 minutes.

• Youths were often disciplined for minor infractions through inappropriate uses of lengthy and unnecessary isolation without due process. The report documented one case in which a boy was kept in isolation — inside a small cell with a concrete-slab bed and thin mattress — for two weeks. And shortly after he was released, he was sent back to isolation.

• Staff were not appropriately trained and had a generally "laissez-faire attitude" toward suicidal youth. The report noted that average pay for direct-care staff fell below $12 an hour, well below the nationwide median hourly wage for correctional officers of $18.78.

• The safety of youths was compromised as a result of their relocation to the Jackson Juvenile Offender Center (a more restrictive and punitive facility on the Dozier campus).

• The state failed to provide necessary and appropriate rehabilitative services to address addiction, mental health or behavioral needs, which served as a barrier to the youths' ability to return to the community and not reoffend.

• Youths were subjected to unnecessary and unconstitutional frisk searches. Dozier youths were frisk searched more than 10 times per day. One told investigators, "Some staff rub on your privates." Another said staff "touch too much."

"The failure to address these concerns not only harms the youth, but has a negative impact on public confidence and public safety," the report said. "The critical role of the juvenile justice system to correct and rehabilitate is being abdicated and youth may well be leaving the system with additional physical and psychological barriers to success."

The Dozier school in Marianna, about 60 miles west of Tallahassee, has been the subject of an ongoing investigative series in the St. Petersburg Times called "For Their Own Good." The facility has been exposed a number of times for abuse and neglect. The Department of Justice's investigation confirms much of what the Times has reported.

"What the Department of Justice has done in this report is help us look back at what was and gives us a true guide for what should never, ever happen again," said child advocate Jack Levine, who exposed abuse at Dozier in the early 1980s that prompted a federal class-action lawsuit against the state.

Drake, the DJJ spokesman, said the department is working on a response to the report.

"The issues at Dozier occurred long before this administration took office and it was this administration that closed that facility," he said. "We … do not tolerate misconduct or poor performance. If we identify it we seek to correct it, and if it's not corrected it's closed."

Times staff writer Waveney Ann Moore contributed to this report. Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8650.

For their own good

Read the original special report and updates, and find the Justice Department's full report at links.tampabay.com.

Federal investigation confirms abuse at Dozier, suggests children in danger at other facilities 12/02/11 [Last modified: Friday, December 2, 2011 10:22pm]

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