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- 2014 - January - 22nd -

Senate eyes tighter oversight of juvenile detention contracts

By Margie Menzel

After hearing about troubles involving a private operator of juvenile detention facilities, a Florida Senate panel is considering tightening the state’s oversight of contracts with such providers.

The issue got a hearing at last week’s meeting of the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee. At the request of Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, the panel took up complaints about Youth Services International Inc., which has contracts totaling $100 million with the state Department of Juvenile Justice.

Soto said he’s working with the panel’s chairman, Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, and Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Wansley Walters to include a contractor’s history in other states among the criteria by which the agency awards its contracts.

Soto requested the review after learning about an investigative series on Youth Services International in the Huffington Post, which reported in November that “Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice has continued to award tens of millions of dollars’ worth of prison contracts to YSI, despite a civil rights investigation by the Justice Department and probes into negligence and violent conditions by authorities in at least five states. In the past year alone, the company has already received four new contracts in Florida totaling nearly $37 million.”

Huffington Post reported that YSI has donated more than $400,000 to state candidates and committees over the past 15 years, with nearly two-thirds going to the Florida Republican Party.

Jesse Williams, a YSI senior vice president for operations who was quoted in the Huffington Post reports, did not return calls from The News Service of Florida requesting comment. 

Huffington Post also reported that YSI facilities have generated unusually large numbers of claims that youths had been sexually assaulted — including at the Palm Beach Juvenile Correctional Facility, a 118-bed, high-risk residential facility for males between the ages of 13 and 18. 

In 2012, more than 32 percent of youths who were detained at the Palm Beach facility reported having been “sexually victimized” there — the highest percentage of any facility reviewed in Florida, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics at the U.S. Department of Justice.

The highest percentage of sexual victimization reports in the U.S. in 2012 came from another YSI facility, the Paulding Regional Youth Detention Center in Georgia, with 44.7 percent of youths reporting they’d been sexually victimized there. 

“In response to the findings about Paulding in the report, YSI took decisive action both in cooperation with the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice and independently to address those issues,” YSI’s Williams, testified Jan. 9 before the Justice Department’s Review Panel on Prison Rape in Washington, D.C. 

According to Williams’ testimony, upon learning of the report’s findings, YSI conducted a review of all allegations of sexual abuse filed during 2011, 2012, and 2013, as well as employee discipline reports “to determine if a pattern existed that had

gone undetected by us. Our review did not disclose any such pattern.”

The Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice notified YSI in October that due to a declining juvenile residential population, the contract would expire Dec. 31, 2013.

Williams’ testimony also noted that YSI reviewed the reports of sexual abuse from the staff who surveyed the youth at Paulding “to determine if reports of abuse had been made to YSI staff or to (Georgia) DJJ which we did not act upon. It was determined that no reports were received from surveyors.”

And therein lies the rub, according to Sen. Jeff Clemens, a Lake Worth Democrat, because expecting private providers to report on themselves — as Florida does — is tantamount to asking them to act against their own interests.

“The system we have that largely relies on self-reporting is ripe for abuse,” Clemens said. “Why would any company want to risk million-dollar contracts by reporting every incident?”

Soto isn’t calling for a change in the self-reporting system, but he’s working with Bradley to bring about three changes in the state’s oversight of the Department of Juvenile Justice’s residential contracts.

The first would include a contractor’s history in other states, such as YSI’s at Paulding, among the criteria by which DJJ awards its contracts.

The second would increase the department’s full-time employees to allow for greater oversight of juvenile detention facilities.

The third change would give parents greater access to their children’s records at the facilities.

“I’m open to having a discussion about all three of them, but haven’t committed to any of them,” Bradley said.

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