Top Questions We’re Asking because of Fight Club Coverage

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In the wake of Miami Herald’s disturbing Fight Club expose, which sent shock waves throughout Florida, The Children’s Campaign has analyzed the news series and the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice’s (DJJ) responses in depth (see links at end of this story).

The cases brought to light are egregious, but other harmful interactions occur between residential care staff (guards) and children. For example, taunting, which occurs until the victim acts out and gets punished, sometimes severely, for battery on a law enforcement officer. The guard’s instigation goes unnoticed and, therefore, unreported.

Expectations for solving these long-standing abuses range from “get it done soon” to “it should have happened yesterday.” While urgency is needed, The Children’s Campaign believes we also shouldn’t settle for easy answers. Fixing problems in Florida’s juvenile justice system is more complex than increasing guard pay by 10% or establishing an Office of Youth and Family Advocacy in DJJ (which we applaud).

Examining the bigger picture, shouldn’t the goal of these reform conversations be to discover how we could better rehabilitate youth, rather than how we can better confine them?

An unfortunate side effect of not asking enough questions, or the best questions, is poor policy-making based on opinion presented as research. One such example is a recent report on civil citation that The Children’s Campaign reviewed while this larger discussion of juvenile justice was taking place.

Here’s some of the top questions we’ve been asked, ones we have asked ourselves, and our thinking so far:

1. Should the public and policymakers have faith in DJJ leadership?

Yes. Secretary Christina Daly has continued and broadened meaningful reforms championed by her predecessor, Wansley Walters. Former DJJ Secretary Walt McNeil (who is now sheriff of Leon County) began the reform effort by convening the Juvenile Justice Blueprint Commission. Unfortunately, there was a hiatus in effective leadership when McNeil moved to the Department of Corrections. Walters got it going again and Daly followed.

2. Has DJJ made strides forward with reform?

Yes. More progress has occurred on the “front-end” of the system than in the back end. Civil citations and diversion have reduced the number of arrests. There is better use of data to assign children to programs or to apply other alternatives. This has resulted, however, in deepening the needs of the “back end of the system” – residential care.  Experts believe there are woeful shortages in the middle of the system, which should consist of local therapeutic interventions grounded in best practices.

3. Was the Miami Herald Fight Club series comprehensive in revealing the failings and fixes within the juvenile justice system?

Was it intended to be? Fight Club took a deep dive into the status of secure confinement in Florida’s juvenile justice system and not an across-the-board look at the problems and progress being made from front to back.

4. Are the problems of secure confinement sporadic or systemic? Asked another way, is it a people problem or an institutional problem?

It is both. Secure confinement is its own culture, which is hard to change. DJJ faces some of the same problems with managing its secure confinement facilities, whether state or privately run, as does the Florida Department of Corrections with its adult population.

DJJ clearly has clarified, tightened up and attempted to execute oversight measures, policies and procedures throughout its system. It probably has more accountability measures in place than any previous DJJ administration in the agency’s 25-year history. It is perplexing, then, that the top facility managers didn’t know about serious problems at the operations level. When dealing with the staffing issues, shouldn’t the questions and solutions include them too and not only the guards?

It is difficult to change what isn’t first acknowledged. A serious examination should be given to the QA process that gives satisfactory ratings to secure facilities based on criteria such as paperwork compliance and not systematically reviewing the culture, leadership, impact of staff turnover, impact of staff qualifications (or lack thereof) to provide the intensive therapeutic services needed.

The Children’s Campaign has also heard stories about graduates of the DJJ Training Academy who are told to forget what they were taught as “this is how we do things here” when showing up for work.

This is the culture and measures must be taken to change it. Fixing the long-standing issues with facility cameras should be a top priority. Embracing more rigorous hiring and performance standards, offering better pay to attract better candidates and establishing a promotional career ladder to retain professionals are good starts.  It will also require a re-examination of Florida’s system of care itself.

5. Is it easier to fire abusive guards who work in a private for-profit company or those who work for the state?

Interesting question. Here’s another: Should getting fired be the only punishment an abuser faces? If job termination is the only recourse, culture will not change. Criminal prosecutions must be brought against suspected abusers. The state attorneys should be requested to testify to the appropriate legislative committees on the challenges they are facing in bringing charges so that changes can be made. DJJ can’t bring those charges themselves.  If job termination is the only tool in the box, the road to culture change will be rockier still.

6. Are there kids in secure confinement that shouldn’t be there?

Let us be clear: kids who commit serious and prolific crimes should be held accountable and some may require confinement to protect themselves or the public safety. However, these youth especially need the best rehabilitation and educational opportunities aligned with their deepening needs. Research shows the vast majority of secure confinement facilities do NOT fit that description. Further, secure confinement has been largely proven ineffective. National research on traditional confinement has found high recidivism rates of between 50–70% within 1 or 2 years after release. These numbers should have everyone demanding better options.

Florida still uses secure confinement far too often with the wrong kids. Staff are painfully ill equipped to deal with those who are mentally ill, have substance abuse issues, have pronounced and sometimes severe developmental disabilities and/or could be successfully managed in their local communities if reliable programs and services were available and adequately funded.

7. DJJ’s budget has been reduced in recent years by $70 million. Is that a sign of success? 

Hardly. The revolving door of children leaving detention and residential facilities only to re-offend is exacerbated by holes in the middle of the juvenile justice system. Program models do exist that have shown intensive services available 24/7 reduce incarceration rates and recidivism. These services are far too rare. In addition, children leaving juvenile justice residential care too often return to child welfare, stressing that overburdened system. Money is needed in the middle of the juvenile justice system and for re-entry too.  The shifting of millions away from DJJ to DOC and other priorities is a correctable mistake.

8. Isn’t law enforcement pressing for locking up more children?

Yes. It was revealed last year that 40% of children who were returned to the community while awaiting non-secure placement were re-offending. But 60% weren’t. This is a great example of tons of money being spent on confinement when intensive community-based services would make a difference. But those services in the middle of the system don’t currently exist in most places, so law enforcement’s frustration with what it calls “prolific offenders” is understandable. Changing this narrative requires a different response.

In addition, the number one reason girls are being re-confined is for a technical violation of probation.  Most often, this isn’t the recommission of a crime, but rather the failure to comply with some type of expectation or condition. This process and its bad outcomes require immediate attention and reform.

9. Does Florida deserve an “F” grade for implementing civil citation?

An emphatic no. It’s perplexing that in one year, if this metric is to be believed, Florida has fallen from being a national leader, as represented in 2015 and 2016 reports by the same author, to being a failure – all while increasing the statewide utilization rate by 10% points.

The Children’s Campaign actually would give Florida a “B” grade applying the same recommendations made by the Caruthers Institute. A full statement on this civil citation report will be released next week.

10. Is the Department of Juvenile Justice truly trauma-informed?
In theory, but not always in practice. Traumatized children should not be placed in restraints or isolation, both of which are occurring in DJJ residential facilities. Neither the use of restraints nor isolation are trauma-informed practices. Changing to a trauma-informed service environment will result in a profound cultural shift experienced by all. Youth and their conditions are viewed differently so staff respond differently. The day-to-day delivery of services is conducted differently.

Trauma-informed systems are characterized by safety from physical harm and re-traumatization; an understanding of clients and their symptoms in the context of their lived experiences and culture; genuine collaboration between clients and providers; an emphasis on skill building; an understanding that symptoms are coping mechanisms; a focus on what’s happened to the person versus what’s wrong with the person; and more. Applying this definition of trauma-informed, DJJ and most providers have quite a ways to go.

11. Since private for-profit companies operate DJJ residential facilities, would private nonprofits be better?

The Children’s Campaign has never been comfortable with the for-profit privatization model for reasons that have yet to be explored in committee hearings. When problems exist with the for-profits, and there have been many bad actors we have fought to chase out of Florida, they usually “sell” the company to others already involved with that corporation, and all that really changes is the company name. Culture and practice remain the same.

Further, while admittedly per diem rates are too low, The Children’s Campaign hasn’t advocated for rate increases in the for-profit model because there is little assurance the dollars would actually go to higher quality care with these bottom-line driven companies.

In addition, there is little effort by these for-profits – if the effort even exists at all – to augment state dollars to provide a higher level of care. To our knowledge, there is no philanthropic or substantial local involvement or fundraising to bridge the gaps in services. For-profit companies get what they get from the state and provide whatever services they negotiate with the state. In serving children, we do not see this as an effective model.

Although nonprofits are better positioned to augment public dollars through fundraising, and their boards generally allow for more oversight, let’s not jump to the conclusion that nonprofits in their traditional form are a panacea either. Bad nonprofits can just as easily misuse dollars and abuse public trust. For the most part, however, nonprofits operate to fulfill a charitable mission unlike for-profits that exist to create shareholder value.

The National Juvenile Justice Network (NJJN) actually recommends ending the use of for-profit private youth confinement facilities due to the dangers of fraud, abuse and wasted public tax dollars. For states that cannot immediately eliminate for-profit providers, NJJN urges them to take appropriate actions to protect youth, while simultaneously working to end the use of for-profit prison companies. NJJN believes secure residential facilities run by these companies pose a unique and significant risk because they’re often bottom line driven, resulting in pressures to cut corners and maintain head counts.

12. Is there an alternative model worth considering?

Yes. More accountability and oversight could be achieved if each privately run facility was required to have a governing board with budgetary oversight that’s structured more as a public-private partnership, rather than the current, mostly self-serving “community advisory committees” or traditional nonprofit or for-profit boards. These boards could have some self-appointing members, but others would be prescribed in statute based on the various stakeholder groups that must be involved to assure rehabilitation during confinement and during the re-entry period. Advocacy groups should be included as well. With this structure, The Children’s Campaign would advocate for appropriate rate increases to ensure quality services.

As always, we welcome your feedback on this article. We’ve received many calls, emails and texts over the past few weeks regarding this issue, and we’re grateful for your support and advocacy.

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Top Questions We’re Asking because of Fight Club Coverage