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Review juvenile care policy

"Does the state not have any professional standards for people who work with children here in Florida?"

Erika Doman's question was tinged with anger but grounded in logic. After all, she had seen her granddaughter's arms and legs covered with bruises after an apparent beating at the hands of staff members of the Florida Youth Academy in Largo. And after all, this is Florida, a state with a shameful legacy of not giving adequate oversight to its child welfare providers.

The state of Florida contracts with the private Florida Youth Academy to provide residential care and rehabilitation for juveniles who have been in trouble. The academy at 12895 Seminole Blvd. has beds for 132 youths up to age 18, most of them girls.

In March, Largo police arrested two counselors at the academy, charging one with child abuse and the other with child neglect in connection with the beating of Doman's 16-year-old granddaughter. Police also were looking for a third employee to question.

According to police reports, Doman's granddaughter was taken to a room by two staff members and was punched by one of them while the other watched.

Last week St. Petersburg Times staff writer Leon Tucker reported that two of the three employees police named were hired by the academy despite previous arrest records. Betherea Anthony Stokes, 36, the employee accused of child abuse, had been arrested on suspicion of battery in 1997. The case was dismissed after Stokes completed a pretrial intervention program. Dequicertis Collins, 30, the employee police were seeking for questioning, had been arrested on a domestic battery charge in 2002 and an aggravated battery charge in 1993, but the state attorney chose not to prosecute.

Doman was disturbed that the academy would hire someone who had any indications of possible violence in their past to work with children.

This is not the first time a problem with employees has surfaced at the Florida Youth Academy. In 2000, a program technician at the academy was charged with sexual battery following reports that he allegedly coaxed underage female residents of the academy into sex acts in a bathroom in exchange for money and extra privileges.

After the worker's arrest, officials at the academy said it was an isolated case. But they also announced that in the future, a top official would be on duty at the facility at all times and supervisors would make sure that male employees were not alone with female residents. Two academy managers were reprimanded and supervisors were given what was referred to as "red flag training" to prevent such incidents from happening again.

Under its state contract, the academy is required to screen job applicants for criminal records. The contract states that no one may be hired for direct care with juveniles if they were found guilty, were convicted or adjudication was withheld on a list of offenses, including murder, domestic violence, sexual battery or lewd and lascivious behavior. Because the previous charges against the two employees connected to the recent case either weren't on the list or were dismissed, they were considered acceptable applicants.

The state's policy in that regard is worth reviewing. Many a suspect who authorities are sure has committed the crime has been lucky enough to have the state dismiss the case for reasons that have nothing to do with guilt or innocence. Any arrest in an applicant's history ought to warrant thorough checking if the applicant will be working with children.

But there also is an issue of supervision at the Florida Youth Academy that the state should pursue. Presumably, the academy's awareness of supervision issues was raised after the 2000 sexual battery case. Yet in the recent beating case, police reports indicate two male employees were able to take a girl into a room away from the rest of the population and beat her. And according to police, other youths at the facility reported similar treatment. It seemed to be almost a rite of passage at the facility, police said.

Florida Youth Academy is only one of more than 160 such facilities in Florida that house and treat juveniles. The state's Department of Juvenile Justice refers youths to the academy. For the welfare and safety of all of them, the state should review not just the Florida Youth Academy, but also the requirements and policies in its contracts with such facilities to see if there is a way to keep youngsters safer while they undergo needed treatment.