Dark secrets of Florida’s juvenile justice system : A Miami Herald investigation
It started in the recreation yard one winter afternoon, two youths acting out, taunting another set of boys.
It ended with one boy nursing a fractured wrist and headaches and the man in charge of supervising him fired from the job at Santa Rosa Substance Abuse Treatment Center — a 40-bed boys facility in Northwest Florida that, among other things, provided treatment to trauma and child abuse victims. It would close within months of the incident.
On Feb. 1, 2014, a youth alleged that a group leader stopped him from kicking a door by physically abusing him: The supervisor choked him and struck his head against a wall. The boy said the group leader then twisted his arm behind his back, breaking his wrist.
When the takedown was over, the youth said, “a staff member told him that if he reported the incident to [the abuse hotline], the staff member would press charges against him,” an inspector general report said.
It took almost a week for the boy to be seen at a hospital and have his wrist placed in a cast.
The worker told investigators he tried to place the youth in a “straight-arm escort” to direct him from the door, but the youth “became combative by swinging and trying to kick him.”
Another youth who witnessed the run-in said he saw the staffer’s arm against the boy’s throat. “It looked like he was about to break the youth’s arm. [The young witness] believed the youth was in the wrong for resisting a staff member, but also believed [the staffer] was wrong for restraining [the boy] in the way that he did it,” the inspector general’s report said.
When combined with the video, the evidence tells a harsher story. In the video, the worker jerks the boy “aggressively” and “slams him against the wall,” striking his head, the report said. He pulls the boy’s sweatshirt up and over his face, as if the aggressor in a hockey fight, as the boy continues to swing both his arms and kick.
At one point, he grabs the youth by the neck. The worker, “appears to pull the youth off balance with his right arm that is still around [the] youth’s neck area,” the report notes. “At the same time youth’s heels leave the ground and his right leg appears to leave the ground completely.”
The inspector general’s report sustained the allegation of excessive force. “The approved [restraint] techniques do not include or authorize any technique involving the pulling of a youth’s sweatshirt over his face, choking a youth, or positioning a youth to be off the ground,” the report said. The worker was terminated.
Two months later, Santa Rosa was terminated as well, for failing to meet safety and security requirements.
This narrative is part of Tales from the Front, a collection of short stories about Florida's juvenile justice system. The Miami Herald investigated the state's youth corrections system following the 2015 beating death of a Miami-Dade detainee. Read the full "Fight Club" investigative series here.