Tuesday, April 22, 2008

If juvenile centers close, cops become baby sitters

Sarah Lundy

Sentinel Staff Writer

April 22, 2008

The handcuffed boy stood facing a wall, waiting to be patted down.

An Orlando police officer had just brought the 13-year-old offender to Orange County's Juvenile Assessment Center, a windowless beige building on Central Boulevard near downtown Orlando.

Ten minutes later, the officer was out the door and back to work. Center workers took it from there, photographing the boy for his mug shot, evaluating him for drug and mental issues, and calling his parents.

That simple, seamless process could end if lawmakers in Tallahassee cut the state's share of the center's $4.3 million budget. Without that $335,000 -- money that pays for support staff, operational expenses and supplies -- the center will be forced to close.

Police, judges and counselors worry about losing their one-stop shop for services to troubled juveniles.

"We've got a juvenile-justice system that is broken. But there's one working portion, and they are looking at destroying that now," said Orange County sheriff's Capt. Mike Fewless.

Instead of dropping off juveniles at the center -- which served 9,100 kids last year -- police officers and deputies could spend hours chauffeuring and tending to teens every time they make an arrest.

The routine might start with fingerprints and photographs at the Orange County Jail on 33rd Street. Youngsters who cannot be released must be transported to the juvenile-detention center on Bumby Avenue near Michigan Street. If a juvenile does not need to be held, someone has to contact a parent or guardian and then watch over the offender until adults arrive to take custody.

Before the assessment center opened in 1994, such details frequently tied up law-enforcement officers for almost six hours per case.

"If I had to sit around and baby-sit a kid for three or four hours, I can't do my job," said Orange County sheriff's Sgt. Al Giardiello. "I've turned into a day-care worker with a gun."

This is a dilemma facing officials in 17 counties -- including Seminole, Brevard, Volusia and Polk -- throughout the state. Florida's Department of Juvenile Justice spends about $7 million a year to fund the centers, which also get money from the counties and the Department of Children and Families.

More than just a drop-off point for officers, the centers offer counselors hired by DCF to assess all the teenagers who come through the door for drug-abuse or mental-health issues. The center also can refer families to services in the community.

Those with severe substance-abuse problems can stay in the secure 24-hour detox area at the center. The Addictions Receiving Facility is a 20-bed coed residential program for kids ages 12 to 17 from Orange, Seminole, Brevard and Osceola counties. If the center goes away, the detox operation could close, director Larry Goldberg said.

Parents and police might need to turn to hospital emergency rooms for immediate help -- if hospitals even will accept such juveniles.

"I don't know where [the kids] are going to go," Goldberg said.

The truancy center -- the place for kids picked up while skipping school -- also is housed at the JAC.

Everyone is waiting to see what happens.

Legislators will begin hashing out the center's fate this week.

"We're going to try to keep them as much as possible," said Frank Penela, spokesman for the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice. If the cuts happen, local officials know they will need to have plans.

Circuit Judge Tony Johnson, who handles juvenile cases in court, has scheduled a May 12 meeting for everyone affected by the JAC. By that time, the Legislature will have decided the budget.

Orange County Public Safety Director Mike McCoy plans to gather the area's top cops to talk about other ways of processing juveniles. New procedures at the adult jail will need to be created, he said.

"Those of us who have been around long enough know there was life before the JAC, and there will be life after the JAC," he said.

Sarah Lundy can be reached at slundy@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-6218.

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