Abuse, lies, videotape: A star employee at juvenile lockup confesses to misconduct

Symon Gooding
Symon Gooding Facebook

Symon Gooding had been on the fast track at the Department of Juvenile Justice, having been promoted twice in as many years. With her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice — and credits toward a master’s in public administration — she seemed precisely the type of person administrators were looking for. They called her an agency “treasure.”

But in her upward climb in law enforcement, Gooding applied for a higher-paying job at the Miami Gardens Police Department that required a polygraph test.

She told the truth. It not only cost her the city job, it got her fired by the state.

In her interview with the department, Gooding said she had lied and falsified records many times at the Miami-Dade juvenile detention center, sometimes to cover up abuse of detainees. And that she had coerced kids there into doing the same.

Miami Gardens police waited three months before telling juvenile justice administrators about Gooding’s disclosures. When they did, on Jan. 25, DJJ opened an internal investigation into allegations that its long-troubled Miami lockup has sustained a culture of lies and cover-ups. It’s the same facility where 17-year-old Elord Revolte was beaten to death by detainees in 2015 — at the urging of a still-employed staffer, according to two youths.

Elord Revolte was beaten by as many as 12 fellow detainees at the Miami-Dade juvenile lockup in 2015. Two youths said a staff member encouraged the attacked. No one was charged with a crime. Miami Herald file photo

On Friday, as the Miami Herald asked questions and sought agency records, juvenile justice administrators fired Gooding. The investigation continues. The Miami Herald was unable to reach Gooding.

In a brief statement, a DJJ spokeswoman said the agency “has zero tolerance for staff who jeopardize the integrity and safety of youth by any means, including the falsification of records. Based on recent information received from the Miami Gardens Police Department, DJJ has terminated Ms. Gooding’s employment. Immediately upon learning of these serious and unacceptable allegations, Secretary Daly directed the DJJ Office of Inspector General to launch a full investigation, which is currently ongoing.”

“As always, the ongoing investigation will be thorough and comprehensive to ensure youth safety and staff adherence to all policies and procedures,” said DJJ Secretary Christina K. Daly. “Any staff who are found to have violated policies and procedures will be held fully accountable. And, should it be determined there is a possible criminal violation, the incident will be referred to law enforcement. Once the investigation is complete, it will be made available to the public.”

Gooding’s disclosures came at a particularly difficult time for DJJ: On Oct. 15, four days before a Miami Gardens police sergeant wrote a detailed memo on Gooding’s revelations, the Miami Herald published Fight Club, a six-part series that examined pervasive violence within juvenile lockups and residential programs — some of it instigated by workers and rewarded with treats — widespread sexual misconduct, medical neglect and lax personnel practices that encouraged the hiring of unqualified workers with unsavory pasts.

The series also showed agency leaders long had tolerated a culture in which youth workers lied to investigators, falsified records and failed to report excessive force in order to protect colleagues who abused children.

Shortly after Fight Club was published, Daly was called before state Senate committees to respond to the Herald’s series. While Daly acknowledged the report was accurate, she characterized the Herald’s findings as “isolated events” that portrayed the behavior of only a small handful of “bad people.”

Gooding’s revelations suggest the misconduct is more far-reaching.

Miami-Dade (1)
The Miami-Dade juvenile lockup has a troubled past, including the 2015 beating death of Elord Revolte. Miami Herald file photo

Gooding was hired by DJJ as a detention center secretary in August 2014, at a salary of about $22,000. She had a bachelor’s degree from the University of Central Florida, and a clean record, which made her an attractive job candidate for an agency that requires only a high school degree or its equivalent, and routinely was accepting officers with criminal histories. The following February, Gooding was promoted to detention officer, and her salary rose by nearly $7,000.

Then, in November 2015, Gooding was promoted to detention supervisor, the equivalent of sergeant. In a memo explaining a request to pay Gooding almost 8 percent more than her position normally would fetch — or a little more than $30,000 — the agency’s regional director, Gladys Negron, wrote that Gooding “has shown development, persistence and continues to demonstrate her strong leadership skills. She has maintained an effective working relationship with co-workers, supervisors and youth,” Negron wrote.

“Administrators at the facility unequivocally agree she is a treasured employee,” Negron added. “I feel she will continue to be an asset to this agency.”

But when screeners at the Miami Gardens Police Department interviewed Gooding for a police officer job in October, they were less impressed with Gooding’s leadership skills. And the department was not alone: several other law enforcement agencies had declined to hire her, including the Miami Police Department, Miami-Dade Corrections Department, Volusia County Corrections Department, the Washington Metropolitan Police, Florida Highway Patrol and the Miami-Dade Police Department — which turned her down twice, records show.

A short report from the Miami Gardens police obtained by the Miami Herald says that the Miami Police Department rejected Gooding for “providing false information and omitting information.” Miami’s personnel file included a report from Washington, D.C., that said that department also had rejected her for, among other things, “falsifying information.”

Gooding applied for a job as a police officer with Miami Gardens in May 2017. As part of the department’s screening, Gooding was given a polygraph test on Aug. 10.

Miami Gardens redacted the polygraph report in its entirety. But other records in the personnel file shed light on why Gooding was disqualified. A memo written by a sergeant in the police department’s professional compliance unit included this sentence: “The polygraph revealed no deception, however, she made admission to falsifying official public records in her capacity as a juvenile justice officer. Ms. Gooding disclosed that she falsified multiple reports at the direction of her supervisor.”

The Miami Gardens memo explaining the police department’s decision not to hire Gooding was dated Oct. 19, and Gooding was informed of the decision five days later. Yet DJJ records show the state was not alerted until Jan. 25. A spokeswoman for Miami Gardens did not reply when asked why the city waited three months to alert DJJ.

In his memo, Sgt. David Noble wrote that Gooding “admitted to falsifying official documents in both her polygraph and psychological questionnaire,” and “admitted to knowingly purchasing stolen property” and “multiple instances of committing theft.”

“Ms. Gooding verified that while employed in her current position as a juvenile justice officer, she has knowingly and willingly falsified multiple official documents,” the report said. “Ms. Gooding stated she was asked to manipulate offical documents so that other juvenile officers would not lose their jobs for using excessive force. Ms. Gooding stated her falsifications were clear contradictions of what was captured on video and acknowledged that ... she intentionally manipulated the facts on what was captured from video surveillance.”

“She also confirmed that she has knowingly and willingly coerced juvenile offenders to write statements contradicting what actually occurred,” Noble’s memo said.

The report added: “Ms. Gooding stated she knowingly acted even though she was given unlawful orders from supervisors.”