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.
From stocker to counselor
In a detailed statement, the lawyer for Youth Opportunity Investments, the contractor that runs the treatment center, said that, under YOI’s internal procedures, job candidates with “non-disqualifying” criminal histories generally are flagged for further investigation by the company’s senior leadership, “who personally vet the candidate. Only those candidates who, with clear and convincing evidence, demonstrate qualities that overcome the historical event are considered for employment,” said attorney Gary Sallee. “Few have met that burden.”
“It is YOI’s policy that it hires no one with a prior disqualifying offense and few applicants with non-disqualifying offenses,” Sallee said.
In Jeffries’ case, however, something went wrong. While the details of Jeffries’ employment remain under investigation by YOI executives, the company learned Friday that an employee “knew or should have known about the prior arrests and did not get that information in [Jeffries’ employment] packet,” Sallee said. The employee’s “dishonesty” was discovered Friday, Sallee said, and she was fired.
Sallee said the questions raised by the Herald not only led to the employee’s dismissal but “will create a better system, better policies and procedures.”
Reached by telephone, Jeffries declined to speak at length with a Herald reporter. “I don’t want to speak more about it without a lawyer, even though I gave a statement to police,” he said. “I didn’t expect the case to get so big,” he added. “I didn’t think all this would happen.”
Jeffries’ job application shows he worked as a stocker for a Sam’s Club in Miramar before joining the treatment center, and had been a security guard the previous three years, including stints at a Miami Beach nightclub and what is now called Hard Rock Stadium. He said he was licensed to do security work, and had a Florida concealed weapon permit. His job title with YOI was “youth care worker 1.”
Jeffries’ criminal history isn’t much different than those of many of the teens he supervised at the Broward treatment center. His first arrest appears to have been made in November 2011 by the Tallahassee Police Department, which charged him with petty theft. He was placed in a pretrial diversion program. Later charges included marijuana and drug paraphernalia possession, which were dropped, and aggravated assault with a weapon, also dropped.
A closer look at the assault charges might have caused a personnel director to think twice. A sworn statement from a Miramar police officer said that Jeffries got into an argument — the officer called it a “domestic disturbance” — with his roommate on June 11, 2016. The roommate and her boyfriend told Jeffries “that he had 24 hours to vacate the residence, at which point Jeffries became upset and approached her in an aggressive manner.”
It’s Lord of the Flies culture with some of the people they have managing these facilities.With strong kids controlling the weak kids — and the staff controlling the strong kids.
Jeffrey Butts, director of the Research and Evaluation Center at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice
As Jeffries got closer, his roommate threatened to spray him with Mace, the police report said. Jeffries then told her “that he will shoot her if she does.”
The roommate, who didn’t want to see the argument escalate, ran from Jeffries and sought refuge in a friend’s car, police reported. While the two sat in the car, they could see Jeffries in the rearview mirror “pointing what appeared to be a black handgun at the rear of the vehicle,” the report said. A short while later, Jeffries left.
“The victim stated that she was in fear of her life during the incident,” the report said. Her friend confirmed her account, and police concluded the woman had “a well-founded fear that ... violence was about to take place.”
Though a magistrate found probable cause to sustain the charges against Jeffries, the Broward State Attorney’s Office later declined to prosecute. An internal memo documented that Jeffries’ roommate “wanted to drop charges” and a witness later refused to speak with police.
Jeffries was hired by Youth Opportunity Investments on Oct. 9. His short tenure with the company yielded only one complaint to DJJ — the unnecessary use-of-force allegation that resulted in his firing and arrest, records show.
What few details are available of the Dec. 9 incident are contained in an arrest report by the Pembroke Pines Police Department and an incident report by DJJ. There is also a surveillance video that captured the encounter, but DJJ has yet to release it to the Herald.
The youth who is listed as Jeffries’ victim is a 16-year-old from West Palm Beach. He is 5 feet 7 inches tall, and weighs 150 pounds. His parent is the state of Florida, as the teen is a foster child whose mother and father were stripped of their parental rights.
Though the youth had been charged with simple battery in March 2016, the rest of his criminal history includes nonviolent, mostly minor offenses such as burglary, using a fake ID, trespassing, criminal mischief and theft.
Jeffries, the police report said, “became upset with the victim because the victim was spreading false rumors about him. [Jeffries] confronted the victim in the ‘day room’ common area.” He then “struck the victim with a closed fist once on the left side of the victim’s face.” The teen was not injured. Jeffries’ rap sheet says he is 5 feet 10 inches tall, and weighs almost 160 pounds.
DJJ’s incident report said Jeffries was fired some time after the altercation. Investigations are underway by DJJ, the Pembroke Pines police and the state Department of Children & Families.
A lawyer for the teen, West Palm Beach Assistant Public Defender Megan Eaton, declined to discuss the case, except to say in an email:
“We are concerned about the safety of our clients in these facilities, particularly given that this incident happened after the Miami Herald’s exposé of DJJ’s past violations against children in their commitment facilities.”
The strong and the weak
Jeffrey Butts, who is director of the Research and Evaluation Center at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said Florida’s juvenile justice system will continue to be suffused with violence as long as the private providers that operate its post-adjudication facilities pay as little as $19,000 per year to the men and women who work with often mentally ill, disabled and traumatized youths. Jeffries’ annual salary was $21,611, Sallee said.
Butts said his starting salary as an Oregon social worker with a master’s degree was about $19,000 — almost 35 years ago.
“This is a social choice,” Butts said. “Florida is making a social choice when it underpays the people who take care of the most needy and most troubled children.”
“It’s ‘Lord of the Flies’ culture with some of the people they have managing these facilities,” added Butts, who has worked with policymakers in 28 states, largely on youth justice. “With strong kids controlling the weak kids — and the staff controlling the strong kids.
“You are using violence to try to teach kids not to use violence.”