Court: Public Defender can interview residents of controversial juvenile facility
By Margie Menzel The News Service Of Florida
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, FL — The Broward County Public Defender’s Office on Thursday (July 26, 2012) won access to the residents of Thompson Academy, a privately-run juvenile facility that has faced numerous allegations of abuse.
The decision is the latest development in a bitter battle between the public defender and Youth Services International, a Maryland-based company that operates Thompson Academy and other facilities in Florida and elsewhere.
Last month the Broward public defender filed a motion in Florida’s 17th Judicial Circuit, asking that residents of Thompson Academy be removed and no more youths be placed there. The court shares jurisdiction of Thompson Academy with the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice.
The allegations include excessive use of force by staffers at the Pembroke Pines facility and efforts to prevent the residents from contacting public defenders or the state abuse hotline to report incidents of abuse.
Not only are the residents complaining of abuse, said Broward County’s chief assistant public defender, Gordon Weekes, “they’re complaining of retaliation” if they report it.
But both YSI and DJJ say the facility is accredited and in compliance with state standards.
“If we thought the kids at Thompson Academy were in the kind of threatening situation alleged by the public defender, we would close the place immediately,” said DJJ spokesman C.J. Drake.
Drake said DJJ staffers have visited Thompson Academy 43 times since its current contract began in January 2010, and that no deficiencies were found. In January 2012, the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities (CARF) accredited the facility for three years.
The allegations against Thompson Academy go back to at least 2008, when Weekes wrote the facility’s administrators asking them to investigate poor supervision and increased violence.
And in 2010, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a federal class-action lawsuit against Thompson Academy and YSI, making many of the same charges as Weekes. It was settled last year.
A major bone of contention has been the residents’ access to recourse, including phones, if they are mistreated. CARF, the accrediting commission, found that juveniles had access to phones and to the abuse hotline, giving them “a great sense of security and power.”
According to Weekes, however, “the phones are located in highly visible areas where other youth and staff would become privy to their making a report. That discourages complaints.”
A recent court filing alleged that, “Staffers dissuade youth from calling the abuse hotline by imposing threats and intimidation.” It also charged, “Administrators deliberately delay attorney-client visits in an attempt to hide wrongdoings within the program.”
Thursday’s hearing settled the question of whether the Broward public defender could meet with the residents. That has been hotly disputed, with the facility claiming that Weekes and his colleagues have tried to meet with residents whom they have no right to represent, and that they’ve shown up unannounced when the young men are in class.
Weekes disputes those charges, but Tod Aronovitz, the Florida attorney representing YSI, charged the Broward public defender with conducting a deliberate operation against his client.
“The recent media campaign orchestrated by the Broward County public defender against Thompson Academy, a youth residential center where each resident has an average of 20 felony and misdemeanor convictions, does a disservice to Florida residents,” Aronovitz said.
DJJ could not immediately confirm whether the average number of convictions is accurate. Thompson Academy is a medium-security facility.
“They’re going to use a scorched-earth technique to destroy the credibility of the accusers – the accusers who are still in their custody and care,” Weekes said.
Aronovitz also said he knows the reason for the alleged vendetta.
“The Broward County public defender is a leading advocate against privatization,” he said, “and it’s disappointing that his political agenda is the driving force in this matter.”
David Utter, policy director at the Southern Poverty Law Center, couldn’t comment on the lawsuit against Thompson Academy that his organization settled last year. But he did say that based on his experience, “accreditation is the shield used by poorly-run places to hide how they’re really treating kids.”
“Transparency is the best way to keep institutions and institutionalized people safe,” said Utter. “Good facilities have nothing to hide.”