After years of criticism, YSI is out of Florida’s juvvie justice system

For years, Youth Services International has fended off allegations of substandard care of the juvenile offenders it houses for Florida, and for years, Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice has continued to award the Sarasota company lucrative contracts and defend its practices.

Palm Beach County Commissioner Shelley Vana, a fierce critic of YSI

Palm Beach County Commissioner Shelley Vana, a fierce critic of YSI.

Until now.

YSI is out as of August 31.

DJJ Secretary Christina Daly said in a written statement issued late Wednesday afternoon that the decision was set in motion by a former YSI employee who sued the company, alleging it faked documents key to its lucrative state contracts and failed to provide services to juveniles in its care.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office became involved, said Daly, and the resulting mediated settlement requires YSI to relinquish its contracts to run seven DJJ facilities — and reimburse the state for unspecified financial losses.

“While YSI believes there is no merit to this lawsuit, it made the decision to settle the case in an effort to put the four year litigation in the past and avoid the future cost and distraction of a continued legal defense,” said a company spokesman in a statement.

Palm Beach County Juvenile Correctional Facility, which YSI ran for years.

Palm Beach County Juvenile Correctional Facility, which YSI ran for years.

“To know that they are not going to be in the state anymore is absolutely marvelous,” said Palm Beach County commissioner Shelley Vana. Vana’s high-profile criticism of how YSI ran the troubled Palm Beach Juvenile Correctional Facility focused Tallahassee’s attention on the firm.

And this from Broward County public defender Gordon Weekes, who represents youthful offenders and has a laundry list of issues with the firm: “It’s about time.”

Last August, YSI opted out of its multimillion-dollar state contract to

run the Palm Beach center for teenage boys after a surprise inspection by Vana found several teenagers with shoes that were falling apart. Some toilets weren’t working. Teens said they were hungry.

Further, in the previous eight months before her visit, two staffers were charged with child neglect after arranging a brutal fight between teenagers. One of the teens sustained a “possible fractured eye socket and a fractured nose,” according to investigators.

DJJ requested an investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Even so, the agency largely defended its long-time contractor.

Yet the company has found itself under fire since 1997, when DJJ awarded Correctional Services Corp. — which later became YSI — its very first contract, to run the 350-bed Pahokee Youth Development Center in rural Palm Beach County.

Just months later, Dade County Circuit Judge Thomas Petersen reported “physical and psychological conditions (that) bordered upon child abuse” at the facility.

The company flatly denied Petersen’s findings. Months before the $30 million contract was set to expire, however, and one week before a slated Palm Beach County court hearing on conditions at the center, the company dropped the Pahokee contract.

It was, said state officials, a mutual decision. But not long after that, YSI picked up more state contracts to house and treat juveniles for the state, including the Palm Beach Juvenile Correctional Facility deal, and has been racking up contracts ever since.

In June 2013, just as the Dept. of Justice published its findings that the rate of youth-reported sex abuse at the Palm Beach facility was triple 2012’s statewide average, Florida signed off on contracts with YSI valued at $17.7 million. In October of that year, when Pembroke Pines police were investigating two YSI staff members accused of assaulting teens in their care, Florida and YSI inked an $11.7 million contract. And the company got a $29 million contract even as it was fending off a suit alleging civil rights violations at Thompson Academy in Broward County.

YSI will be out of the business of caring for Florida juvenile offenders as of August 31, said Daly, when new operators are expected to be phased in. Just who that will be isn’t yet known.

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