After six years of watching her daughter deteriorate, an Orlando-area mother dropped her off at the Lake & Gulf Academy, where she hoped the troubled girl would attend specialized classes, get counseling and “enter back into society with the skills necessary to succeed in daily life.”
Inside the Tampa youth camp, the girl saw or participated in fights almost daily, endured riots, and complained she’d been molested by a male staff member more than once. Treatment? The teen didn’t get much, her mother said, because she declined to participate, and nobody encouraged her. Though the teen was depressed before an Orange County judge ordered her into the program, she later wanted to die.
“Since being placed at Lake and Gulf Academy, she has been completely broken and has lost all hope,” the mother wrote in an Aug. 27, 2013, email to Wansley Walters, the Department of Juvenile Justice’s secretary at the time.
The mother said she caught glimpses of the mayhem firsthand. The woman drove west to Tampa on a Saturday visit three days before the email was sent. “What I witnessed during that visit was horrifying. ... During my visitation there were three different fights that broke out and were audible and visible in the visitation room. During one of the fights, the door to the visitation room actually popped open” just before a riot.
“It was emotionally unnerving to witness,” the mother wrote, “and to know that this is what my daughter experiences on an almost daily basis.”
The girl had become so despondent that, following one of three attempts at taking her life, her psychiatrist at St. Joseph’s Hospital strongly recommended that she not return to the program, the mother wrote.
“I will kill myself if I have to go back to that program,” the girl told her psychiatrist.
The girl was returned to the academy that Aug. 22, and her mother said she was “assured” the girl would be placed on a suicide watch under one-on-one supervision. But four days later, the mother wrote, the girl’s caregiver “left to help break up a fight, and that is when [the girl] tied something around her neck.” It appears that led to another involuntary commitment.
A day after the email was sent, Melissa Johnson, a DJJ Central Florida program monitor, spoke with the mother.
The mom’s “greatest concern is for [her daughter’s] safety,” Johnson wrote in an email. She “indicated that suicidal ideation and attempts were a previous issue before [the girl] went to Lake, but [she] feels that now [the girl] is attempting suicide out of desperation and hopelessness, and the attempts are more serious.”
The mom also worried that staff at the facility didn’t take such threats seriously after a nurse said the girls were known for “faking for attention.”
“We know when a girl is going to kill” herself, the nurse said, in what the mom thought was a dismissive manner.
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.