State officials on Friday announced plans for quality improvements and tighter monitoring of juvenile justice residential and detention facilities following the arrest last month of a staff member accused of battering a 15-year-old girl in the Florida Panhandle.
The new efforts include enhancing mental health training, routinely interviewing youths and reviewing less serious incidents by the state. Such incidents formerly were handled by private providers or program managers.
"Our primary concern is the health and safety of Florida's youth," said Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Wansley Walters. "We are enhancing services to give kids the best foot forward so they can lead rewarding lives."
Ninety-five percent of the residential facilities are privately operated, and the state is planning this year to outsource the remaining five. Those facilities are separate from detention centers, which are state- or county-operated for high risk offenders.
The privately operated Milton Girls Academy, northeast of Pensacola, last month agreed to end its residential contract with the state after the arrest and reports by other children who expressed worries about their safety.
The department on Dec. 12 released a surveillance video showing Shannon Abbott pushing a teenager into a wall, throwing her on the floor and lying on top of her for nearly 20 minutes in August. Abbott pleaded not guilty to the misdemeanor charge.
The agency in October also released a report on the death of 18-year-old Eric Perez at the Palm Beach Regional Juvenile Detention Center in July 2011 after a staffer dropped him on his head. The report said Perez lay vomiting and moaning on a mat after staffers failed to get him medical attention, and by the time they called 911, he was dead.
Nine staffers were fired, but no criminal charges were filed after a grand jury investigation.
The new mental health training will include trauma care principles for residential and detention staffers.
The department also plans to interview a cross-section of inmates in both types of facilities, focusing on incidents that have gone unreported and ensuring access to Florida's abuse registry hotline.
The department plans to interview residents and review videos related to allegations of abuse or inappropriate physical intervention at residential facilities within 24 hours of being reported prior to, instead of after, a formal investigation has begun. This already is the practice at detention facilities.
The agency also will review its physical and verbal intervention system at every residential program to ensure state legal guidelines are followed and seek assistance from The Annie E. Casey Foundation and other third parties in assessing programs and recommending improvements.