Gov. Scott signs comprehensive overhaul of Department of Juvenile Justice

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On Tuesday, Gov. Rick Scott signed a major rewrite of the way the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice operates, moving it closer to a focus on prevention, intervention and the rehabilitation of juvenile offenders.

Margie Menzel of the News Service of Florida writes that HB 7055 orders the DJJ to implement a new strategy shifting funding to prevention programs, with the purpose of keeping kids out of the juvenile system from the start. Additional criminal penalties will be set for the abuse or neglect of teens of all ages while in the department’s custody, as well as mandating the DJJ to provide the Legislature annual reports on the results of all its programs.

At the same time, Scott named Department of Juvenile Justice deputy director Christy Daly as interim secretary, replacing Wansley Walters, who is stepping down at the end of June.

“I believe the system is a better system today than it was, than it used to be, and it’s getting better every single day,” Walters said at a proclamation ceremony with Cabinet members Tuesday.

The new vision will make sure the department’s approach to juvenile justice remains in place after Walters’ departure, Menzel notes.

Children and families in the state’s juvenile justice system deal with ongoing abuse and violence, so the goal of the system rewrite is to move away from the punitive approach to behavior problems, something seen as counter-productive.

“Trust me, if they’re a really serious offender in this state, they’re going to the adult system,” Walters said during a visit to juvenile-detention facilities on Monday. “So any child that’s in our care is one that a judge and a state attorney felt could be rehabilitated. Why, when we get these children, would you think that beating them down, taking away their identity, stripping their spirit down — and think that when they come out, they’re going to do just great with that? It’s ridiculous.”

Trauma-informed care is a strategy based on the idea that by addressing painful experiences — family violence or drug addicted parents — children and young adults can be rehabilitated.

“It’s seeing the kids and asking, ‘What’s happened to you?’ instead of ‘What’s wrong with you?’ ” said Maureen Honan, a Department of Juvenile Justice analyst. “And it’s a completely different approach, completely different mindset.”

One section of the bill criminalizes abuse and neglect of teens in detention facilities, prompted in part by the 2011 death of Eric Perez, 18-year-old in the Palm Beach Regional Juvenile Detention Center. Perez died after receiving blows to the head, which the guards described as “horseplay” even though he pleaded for medical help.

As a result, the department fired nine guards, but the state attorney could not charge anyone because the law recognizes child neglect only for youths up to age 18. The new law criminalizes abuse of teens of all ages in the system.

In 2012, a Milton Girls Juvenile Residential Facility guard was arrested for battering a 15-year-old girl. A surveillance video showed guard Shannon Abbott appearing to push the girl into a wall, throw her to the ground, pinning her down for 20 minutes. In an incident report, Abbott claimed the teen resisted, but the video contradicted that account. Facility staff failed to report the incident to the DJJ for at least two days, after the Department of Children and Families verified a hotline report of abuse by the teen.

DJJ later transferred the girls from the Milton facility to other programs, later terminating the private contract with the provider running the complex.

“Changing the old-school mindset and morphing people’s ideas and beliefs about kids, I’m sure, has been very rough for (Walters),” said DeFuniak Springs Walton County Youth Development Center program director Melanie James. “But she cares about people — a lot — and her responsibility is to make sure we care about these kids.”

The 38 young men in her facility are really “normal kids,” James said.

“I’ve made decisions as a teenager that probably could have landed me in a (juvenile detention) program,” James added. “So for me to walk into a building and feel holier-than-thou and better than the population I serve is really hypocritical.”

On Monday, Menzel reports that Walters and Daly toured two Panhandle facilities including the Walton complex, which serves high-risk and moderate-risk youths. Surrounding the high-risk side is razor wire. Walters said it would soon come down.

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.