Monday, April 16, 2007

State has tighter grip than firms on juvenile justice centers, ratings show


State has tighter grip than firms on juvenile justice centers, ratings show

By Kathleen Chapman

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 15, 2007

When the state shut down its failed prison for teenage girls in suburban West Palm Beach, it moved inmates to a new program that soon had many of the same problems.

At the Umatilla Academy for Girls in Lake County, security cameras caught five workers dragging girls by their arms or legs in violation of state policy. Some of the teens skipped school, stole razors from a secure room and said they were shown R-rated movies such as Freddy vs. Jason. Police were called to stop a major disturbance in which out-of-control girls hurled chairs and vacuum cleaners, state records show.

Florida Department of Juvenile Justice inspectors also found that the academy's for-profit management company, Diversified Behavioral Health Solutions Inc., had failed to fill dozens of positions required in its $5.4 million annual contract.

The state shut that program down, too, only 17 months after opening it.

Since the 1990s, Florida leaders repeatedly have given juvenile justice contracts to for-profit corporations, saying the companies can do a better job and save the state money. Last year, key legislators decided to privatize the state-run Palm Beach Regional Juvenile Detention Center on 45th Street in West Palm Beach, again saying a private company could provide more services for kids while saving the state at least $100,000 a year.

But after years of lean funding from the legislature, for-profit juvenile justice programs aren't doing a better job than the state, according to 2006 state data.

The 18 state-run residential programs, which pay youth-care workers thousands more a year on average than private companies, were less likely to be cited for incidents such as abuse and excessive force, according to rankings in the Department of Juvenile Justice's 2006 Residential Program Report Cards.

An informal review by researchers at The Justice Research Center in Tallahassee also found that the state-run programs did slightly better last year than the private programs at reducing the number of teens who committed crimes after release. But the sample of teens was not big enough to determine whether the difference was significant or merely the result of random chance, researchers found.

For-profit programs did as well on average as state-run programs on quality-assurance inspections, but lagged on total performance scores, which took into account the inspection scores, substantiated incidents, recidivism rates and more.

Before the 2005 closing of the Florida Institute for Girls in suburban West Palm Beach, guards were criminally charged with having sex with teens, and four girls' arms were broken in violent restraints.

A grand jury report released in 2004 found that the first for-profit contractor to run the center, Premier Behavioral Solutions, had locked girls in their rooms while they were supposed to be in school or other activities because it couldn't hire enough workers to guard them.

The Umatilla Academy for Girls paid $10 an hour to start, more than most centers, said Joshua Ford, president of Diversified Behavioral Health Solutions. But like many juvenile justice contractors, the company had to force employees to work 16-hour shifts twice a week because it couldn't keep enough workers on the job. The average youth-care worker in Umatilla's first year stayed for only 83 days, according to state reports.

A state monitor who visited the program during its first few months of operation said neither the girls nor the workers could describe any consequences for bad behavior. Half of the case managers did not have a college degree and the youth-care workers seemed to function merely as prison guards, one state monitor wrote in August 2005. Employee files in May 2005 contained no evidence that 20 of 22 employees had been trained to restrain girls without hurting them.

A monitor calculated in March 2006 that the state was paying at least $689,761 a year for positions the company had not filled.

Ford said he didn't pocket that money as profit. The program struggled with turnover, he said, but any money he saved on empty positions went to pay overtime and workers compensation costs for employees working double shifts.

In financial reports he sent to the state in the fall of 2005, he projected a loss of more than $1 million. The company "never made any money," he said, and wasn't able to stay afloat when the state stopped sending girls.

Circuit court records in Lake County show that Diversified Behavioral Health Solutions owes more than $500,000 in unpaid bills.

Program's woes stir alarm

Ford, 33, began his career as a nurse and said he became interested in mental health treatment. He ran a program for girls at Bowling Green in Central Florida, and won a second contract in 2004 to open the Umatilla Academy for Girls.

The program served girls the state calls "high-risk," meaning they were serious or repeat offenders, often with histories of trauma and abuse.

The program opened in March 2005.

One month later, the state announced that the Florida Institute for Girls would close. Seventeen inmates from the institute eventually transferred to Umatilla.

Ford said he takes responsibility for the center's problems but that he would have been successful if given more time.

In any program for tough kids, "you are going to have staff that do terrible, idiotic things," he said.

But poor employees were replaced and the program improved dramatically after its first year, he said.

He contends that the state's monitoring reports were unfair, ill-informed and often overblown. In the case of the stolen razors, a contractor who came to tint the window turned his back on them, Ford said.

But other observers also worried that the workers at Umatilla weren't helping the girls. In the summer of 2005, attorneys from the Palm Beach County Public Defender's Office and the Juvenile Advocacy Project for the Legal Aid Society became concerned about local teens sent to the program.

According to the attorneys, one girl said she was not getting meaningful help for her drug addiction and many girls said the program had no anger management classes that the court required them to attend.

During a July 5 visit, one teen from Palm Beach County told her attorney, Barbara Briggs, that little was happening at Umatilla but "confusion, gossip and drama."

The girls told the attorneys that they had never met the person who was prescribing them powerful drugs, a charge Ford denies.

"If treatment issues are not addressed immediately, it will not take long to replicate the dismal failure of the Florida Institute for Girls," the attorneys said in a letter to the state.

On Aug. 9, staff member Otis McDuffie, 21, was arrested after video surveillance showed him dragging a girl down the hallway by her feet. The teen had rug burns on her back, elbows and shoulders.

McDuffie eventually pleaded no contest to a second-degree misdemeanor.

A week after the incident, the chief medical director and north regional director for the Department of Juvenile Justice made an unannounced visit to review the surveillance tapes. Video showed that three other workers also had dragged girls and then failed to report the incidents as required. The inspector general found that a fifth worker dragged a girl across the floor by her arms on Aug. 19.

Then, between midnight and 2:20 a.m. Nov. 4, workers lost control of the facility. Several girls refused to go to bed and got up to make phone calls. One staff member reacted by ripping the phone out of the wall, accidentally hitting a teen in the nose, according to an inspector general report.

Girls threw plastic chairs and vacuum cleaners, and one teen tried to break a window with a jug from the water cooler, the report said. About 10 to 15 girls who were supposed to be in bed ran through the hallway, according to state employees who reviewed security footage of the incident. One girl gave a foot massage to a staff member.

Though no one was seriously injured, workers were not able to get the girls to bed until the police came, the inspector general said.

After warning the company it was on the brink of losing its contract, a state monitor made a final visit in July 2006. The final report said training for workers was more organized, and that clinical workers were taking notes to document teens' progress and working sporadically with some of the girls' families.

But on July 19, the therapy sessions were still not happening as often as they should have been, a state monitor wrote. And only 39 of the 70 youth-care positions were filled.

The state decided to terminate the contract.

Wages grow; bids dwindle

In 2006, the state had 124 residential programs for teens sentenced by the courts. Of those, 18 were run directly by the Department of Juvenile Justice, 52 were run by for-profit companies and 54 were run by nonprofit contractors or other government agencies.

Many residential programs say they struggle with crippling turnover. But the loss of employees is worse at private companies that pay lower wages, according to a 2005 report by the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability.

The legislature approved a budget increase for private residential programs in each of the last two sessions, which allowed them to give workers modest raises.

In 2005, private for-profit programs paid workers a median wage of $17,906 a year, compared with $19,881 at programs for teens managed by nonprofit contractors, the study found. State workers in comparable state-run residential programs made a median of $22,762 that year.

A Palm Beach Post review of 2006 state data shows that two-thirds of the state-run programs had no incidents or a low number of incidents such as abuse or excessive force committed by workers, compared with less than half of for-profit programs. Those ratings are based only on the size of the program, not the type of offenders sent there.

Many companies have stopped bidding on new programs, and the state often has little choice among contractors. State records from January 2006 through March 2007 show that only 10 of 27 residential juvenile justice programs put out to bid attracted more than one offer. Six had no takers, and the remaining 11 had a single bidder.

The state rejected bids from both for-profit companies for the Palm Beach Regional Juvenile Detention Center this month, saying neither met its minimum standards. The Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office considered bidding on the contract but passed, saying it would need much more money to pay salaries close to what employees make at the adult jail.

G4S Youth Services LLC, which runs the Sago Palm Academy in Pahokee and has more residential programs than any other company in Florida, earned an "effective" ranking from the state on five of its programs last year for reducing teen recidivism rates. But the company chose not to renew its contract for the juvenile detention center in Southwest Florida in 2005, saying the state wasn't offering enough money.

President and CEO Gail Browne said her company makes its money by cutting overhead costs, not salaries for direct-care workers. She said she makes less than half the salary of the top executive at one of the state's comparable for-profits and doesn't have a secretary. Her company has managed to make low profit margins because of its size.

"I'm not surprised when I see some of the smaller operations fail," Browne said. "I don't know how they do it."

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