TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — All juvenile offenders have been removed from a Panama City boot camp where a 14-year-old boy was hit and kicked by guards before he died, the head of the state’s juvenile justice agency said Wednesday.
Under sometimes hostile questioning, Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Anthony Schembri told the state House Juvenile Justice Committee the camp was emptied Tuesday. It was run and staffed by the Bay County Sheriff’s office under contract with the department.
Bay County Sheriff Frank McKeithen has said he planned to shut down the camp in May because of 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson‘s death, which is under investigation. A medical examiner said he died from complications of a genetic blood disorder, which the family disputes.
Agency officials said 22 children were there at the beginning of this week, but nine graduated from the program Tuesday and the others were transferred to various other facilities. None were sent to other boot camps.
Schembri said the children who had remained in the camp were moved as soon as beds could be found for them elsewhere in the system. There are four other state-supervised boot camps around Florida.
While he ordered children moved out of the Bay County facility, Schembri defended the concept of using the military-style boot camps for some juvenile offenders.
“For some kids, this works,” Schembri told the committee.
He also said that some changes were coming in the way the agency deals with contractors who care for kids the department sends them, such as sheriff’s agencies that run boot camps, although he said he couldn’t yet give specifics.
Some members of the panel grilled him about the agency’s role in protecting children in its custody, and what it can do when a contractor violates department policy.
Schembri said the agency monitors compliance with its standards and can close down boot camps if they are particularly bad. But he said, the agency prefers to work with contractors to try to improve them first.
When Schembri noted he has no power to fire or discipline Bay County sheriff’s employees, Rep. Audrey Gibson wasn’t satisfied.
“It sounds to me like you are releasing the department from all responsibility for those children,” said Gibson, D-Jacksonville.
Schembri also hasn’t satisfied child advocates who have criticized the department’s handling of the case.
“How about a declarative statement that they’re not going to hurt children?” said Roy Miller, director of the Florida Children’s Campaign. “They still haven’t said it.”
Schembri tried to reassure the panel that the agency was considering changes, including revisions to its policies for training and use of force on juveniles.
“We’re talking to the sheriffs about policies and procedures … that they could employ,” Schembri said. “We’re doing anything we can to make sure another tragedy like that doesn’t happen.”
But Rep. Mitch Needelman, R-Melbourne, said the agency didn’t push for more training money when lawmakers were writing the budget last year.
“Not one time did DJJ come forward and say, ‘These are the moneys we need to have,'” Needelman said.
Schembri also met Wednesday with Gov. Jeb Bush and sheriffs or their aides in the four other counties that have boot camps: Pinellas, Manatee, Martin and Polk.
“We invited the sheriffs to discuss ways to improve rules and procedures,” said Bush spokeswoman Alia Faraj. She said they didn’t get too deeply into specific changes, but agreed to continue to meet.
Faraj said the sheriffs are also committed to continuing boot camps, and that they intentionally didn’t discuss the Anderson case because it was under investigation. Officials in Martin County, however, have said they plan to close their boot camp later this year.
Schembri told the House committee that his department’s internal investigation into Anderson’s death wasn’t moving more quickly because the criminal investigation must be completed before agency officials can do interviews.
Anderson died early on Jan. 6 at a Pensacola hospital, hours after he collapsed after doing exercises on his first day at the camp. He was then struck, kicked and dragged to the ground by several guards during a half-hour ordeal that was recorded on video tape.
The Bay County medical examiner ruled that Anderson died due to complications from the blood disorder sickle cell trait, not from being beaten. A second autopsy is planned for next week. A special prosecutor in Tampa is also investigating, but no criminal charges have been filed.
Schembri also acknowledged that excessive force has been a problem in other cases with juvenile offenders.
Rep. Frank Peterman, D-St. Petersburg, asked if abuse of kids in DJJ custody was “a common occurrence.”
“We’ve had many cases of excessive use of force,” Schembri replied.
He said he has fired offenders that were department employees. He said he has fired or suspended more than 200 officers since he took over the department in May 2004.
When the offending officer doesn’t work for the department, such as in a boot camp, Schembri said he has referred them to local prosecutors for possible criminal charges.