As Youth Services International exits Florida, critics ask: Why are for-profit businesses in charge of youthful offenders?

It’s almost impossible to talk about Youth Services International exiting the Florida juvenile system without also talking about privatization.

“We should recognize as a community that we cannot derive profit off the punishment and rehabilitation of kids,” said Gordon Weekes, the Broward County chief assistant public defender who for years has locked horns with YSI over the treatment of kids in its care.

“This should never have been a profit center.”

Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice long ago began putting the care and treatment

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

of juveniles bound for residential, treatment or detention facilities into the hands of private companies.

YSI was among the first to ink contracts and among the first to start chalking up troubling reports dating to its mid-1990s management of a Pahokee lockup: not enough staffers, not enough food and too much violence.

Last week, DJJ announced it was severing the company’s seven contracts as part of a whistleblower suit settlement. The whistleblowers, all former YSI employees, had reported, among other things: not enough staffers, not enough food and too much violence. (YSI said that, even though the suit was without merit,  it settled because it wanted to put the long-running litigation behind it. )

Caroline Isaacs
Caroline Isaacs

But, said Caroline Isaacs, Arizona director for the American Friends Service Committee, “This is not about a single bad actor or a few bad apples. It is inherent in the effort to make money and is driven by the concerns and needs of shareholders.”

“Oh, I never fault the companies on this stuff,” said Paul Wright. That’s a bit out of left field coming from Wright, a former prison inmate, the founder and Executive Director of the Human Rights Defense Center and editor of the award-winning Prison Legal News, which has for years has taken on prison privatization in all its manifestations.

Paul Wright
Paul Wright

But, said Wright, nobody should be surprised when a for-profit company finds ways to make profits.

“Let’s take them at their word they are in the business of making money,” he said. Cutting costs is part of the deal, he pointed out.

“It’s not their fault that government continues to shovel money at them.”

 

Weekes said YSI’s exit give DJJ an opportunity: a small, state-run facility that incorporates the best practices of juvenile detention. “Take the the profits we are paying to companies and get down to core  element of what a child needs to get back on the right track,” he said. “Once we have best practices, we can replicate that.

“We can’t just keep throwing good money after bad at the YSIs of the world.”

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.

Juvenile Justice agency to county commissioners: We’re working on reported problems at local juvvie center

Christina Daly didn’t have to pen letters to each of the Palm Beach County Commissioners about conditions at the local juvenile detention center, but the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice chief’s two page missive might allay concerns.

“I can assure you this department does not tolerate conduct or an environment that puts youth at risk,” DJJ Secretary Christina Daly wrote commissioners on Monday.

And Daly ticked off a laundry list of efforts: an unannounced visit by both the Inspector General and the head of the agency’s Bureau of Inspections, a fresh round of surveys of teenage boys housed there, a facilities inspection, an assessment of how staffers are trained in the use of force and, of course, the request that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement look into the facility.

Youth Services International, the Sarasota-based company operating the center under contract to DJJ, isn’t mentioned in the letter.

But it’s very much in the forefront of criticism. Legal advocates, including lawyers for teenagers housed in YSI facilities, have slammed YSI for several years. Only last year, a Florida Senate subcommittee took testimony into conditions at a Broward center run by the company.

YSI denied allegations of maltreatment and DJJ’s inspector general also found nothing to report.

None of that seems to have factored into Palm Beach County Mayor Shelley Vana’s desire to see the county break its $1-a-year lease with DJJ for the center property and send the agency, and its contractor, packing.

Shelley Vana, paying a second visit to the juvenile center.
Shelley Vana, paying a follow-up visit to the juvenile center.

Rather, it was what Vana found in April when she paid a surprise visit to the 118-bed facility.

Then, this month, two teens were injured; one was hospitalized. In both cases, DJJ said, another teenager was responsible for the injuries- not a staffer.

But staffers have had problems, too, including two who faced misdemeanor criminal charges after arranging a fight between teenagers there.