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Abuse of Girls at Milton Detention Facility Exposes Flaws in Florida’s Juvenile Justice

| December 18, 2012

A dated image from Milton Girls Juvenile Residential Facility, where staffers are accused of abusing girls.

After two incidents of staffers charged with abusing teens at a juvenile lock-up in Milton – one caught on video – the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice has frozen admissions at the facility and put two ombudsmen on every shift until further notice.

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Also, a group monitoring the safety and civil rights of youth in detention in Florida is asking why DJJ gave the Milton Girls Juvenile Residential Facility a 100 percent satisfactory rating just over a year ago – including in the category “provision of an abuse free environment.”

“It is clear that DJJ needs to do more to protect children in its care, and that not only is its residential system broken, its safety monitoring system is fatally flawed,” said David Utter, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center.

DJJ last week released August surveillance videos of a guard at the Milton lock-up, Shannon Abbott, appearing to slam a 15-year-old inmate into a cement wall, throw her to the ground, and then pinning her down for 20 minutes. In the video, the teen appears passive – although Abbott reported her as resisting.

The teen called the Department of Children and Families abuse hotline the next day. DCF then verified the incident as abusive.

The video “seriously contradicts its description to us by officials representing the facility,” said DJJ Secretary Wansley Walters in a statement. “We are also troubled that the facility did not officially report the incident to DJJ until two days after it occurred, and only when the victim called the [Department of Children and Families] Abuse Hotline. This lapse is inexplicable.”

DJJ has transferred the teen in the Abbott incident, which occurred in August, to another facility. The agency is also investigating charges that Carol Andrus, the Milton lock-up’s program director, last month grabbed a restrained 15-year-old and threw her down, lacerating her face and ear. Local law enforcement is investigating as well.

Utter said the gap between DJJ monitors’ reports and the facilities being monitored is a systemic problem. He cited a letter from the U.S. Department of Justice to Gov. Rick Scott in December 2011, after Walters had closed the Dozier School for Boys the previous June.

“The constitutional violations identified in the enclosed report are the result of the state’s failed system of oversight and accountability, which we suspect affect the entire juvenile justice system statewide,” Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez wrote to Scott. “These conditions return youth to the community no better, and likely less, equipped to succeed than when they were first incarcerated.”

Detained youth have a right to reasonably safe conditions of confinement and freedom from unreasonable restraints.

Perez noted “it is incumbent upon the state to insure that the unconstitutional conditions of confinement [at Dozier] do not exist at its other juvenile justice institutions” and that if DOJ “learn[s] of the existence of other unconstitutional conditions of confinement at other juvenile justice institutions in Florida, we have the right to open an investigation there.”

Scott replied to the letter in January 2012.

“We will conduct a comprehensive review of DJJ programs and facilities, redirect youth into alternative programs where appropriate, and reduce the number of deep-end residential beds. I expect that these steps will result in the strategic closing of facilities that have not maintained the standards DJJ has mandated.”

However, Scott continued, he disagrees with Perez’ suspicion that the problems at Dozier are system-wide.

“The issues investigated by your office were confined to the closed facility, and do not constitute a sufficient, sound or fair basis for concluding that an entire state agency and its employees are failing to properly administer the juvenile justice system in Florida,” wrote Scott.

The plan Scott approved for DJJ is a combination of diversion, detention reform and “right-sizing” residential care. Reduced detention over the past five years has allowed DJJ to close hundreds of beds, saving more than $25 million, according to the agency.

Right-sizing has revealed “far too many low-risk youth confined in expensive residential institutions,” Walters wrote agency employees in January. They consume scarce resources that could instead be invested in community-based sanctions that hold youth accountable, protect public safety, create jobs and promote healthy futures for children. Community based sanctions are more effective at reducing juvenile crime and cost much less than correctional institutions.

Walters said the smaller the program, the smaller the rate of abuse. “That is why we are fighting so hard to keep kids out of facilities, because things happen,” she said.

Walters also pointed out that every Florida facility has a phone with direct access to the DCF abuse hotline, which is how the teen in the Abbott incident managed to circumvent the staff.

But as Detective Larry Tynes of the Santa Rosa Sheriff’s Office wrote in his report of the incident, “the victim stated she waited to call the Child Abuse Hotline the next day because she was told by other girls in the facility it would be worse for her if she called DCF right away.”

Utter said the inmates are not interviewed in depth by DJJ monitors, and that it’s time to include their input in the oversight of juvenile facilities.

“Now that we have videotaped evidence of physical abuse of a young girl, by a guard whose most important charge is to keep children safe, it is important to look at the larger picture,” he said.

–Margie Menzel, News Service of Florida

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8 Responses for “Abuse of Girls at Milton Detention Facility Exposes Flaws in Florida’s Juvenile Justice”

  1. confidential says:

    And we lobby, enforce and even go to war for human rights outside our borders..?

    • Terri says:

      I have a daughter in the facility and as a parent we should of known what was going on and to just get a call today that she is being brought back to the facility where she was before sent to the program and we cant see her as not visiting time is wrong I need to see my kid even if its for 1 minute where the hell they get off not letting us know anything. kids are to be taught a lesson is why they are there so go too far when parents at work and got out of hand like mine did and she is paying for it and you think they are done right a minute shouldnt be alot to ask for a parent to see their kid!

  2. Alex says:

    No, it is just an excuse.

  3. candice crabtree says:

    i was a resident at that facility when i was a lil girl i was 13 and i was in there for a year and a half and now i find out that there shut down how can carol andrus and that man do that to those kids. also that staff that did that to that girl. im am sickned by the horror thoses girls went threw i think that they need to be relased to there parents

  4. April says:

    I was one of the girls at Milton girls during the time of this going on. Now i wasnt in the room when this happened but i can say that when the girl (not saying her name in respect for her) came back into the hall that night for master roster i remember seeing her face and wondering what happened then the news flow around real quick and everyone knew then. I felt bad for her but she wasnt the only one done tht way i can tell u ive see them do this to a pregnant girl and me and one of the staff memebers was so worried about this girl cause thy had her down across these chairs where it looked to me as her stomache beening pushed against the chair i was worried about the baby. Now on december 21 2012 milton girls was shut down i and a few other girls were the last ones takein out of there thy would not let us call our parents to inform them nuthan but i did try and contact my parents but all pjones were cut off and when i was finally about to get ahold of my parents thank god with the help of my theripist i couldnt tell them really anything cause i was bein watched ofwhati said to them…. my mom is the woman named terri above and as u can see thy wouldnt even let my parents see me or anything but my parents called news stations and everything thy can think of in find out what waz goin on but i was soon releaseed but i never got in trouble again ill tell u tht

  5. Joscelyn simmons says:

    I was there for 9 months..I knew that place want gone last..but that chief mr.elvis….omg loved him

  6. lacy hageman says:

    I used to be there before i aged out and moved. It was a horrible experience for me to live there. Even back then they still brutally beat us. I know cause i was one of the ones who was beaten. I was locked in a room gor doing nothing and when i told them repeatedly that i had to use the bathroom they wouldnt let me so i ended up going on myself and then i got detained to the unit because of it. I remember them allowing the male staff to throw the girls to the ground and if they moved an inch while up against the wall they were thrown hard to the ground. Hard enough to sustain injuries

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