MIAMI — Sherice Latimore was on her way to Ikea with her daughter when her phone rang. It was a call from the Okeechobee Juvenile Offender Corrections Center. The line disconnected, but not before the caller could tell her that he loved her — and that he feared for his life.

It was her 17-year-old son.

Each time she attempted to get him back on the line, she said, an employee answered and immediately hung up, nearly 20 times. Latimore made a U-turn to drive from Miami to the farmland-bordered Okeechobee facility, a high-security program for 13- to 21-year-old boys tucked behind Okeechobee Correctional Institution, a state prison.

What she didn’t know then, on Aug. 10, 2020, was that she was headed toward a riot.

Around 5:30 p.m., about 20 youths had begun tossing furniture, smashing light fixtures, banging on windows and breaking open room doors. That’s how her son and others were able to get to the office phone.

Thirteen Okeechobee County Sheriff’s deputies were called in to regain control of the facility. Along with officers from the adjacent prison, they arrived with police dogs and pepper ball guns, but placed the youths back in their rooms without any injuries, according to incident reports.

Latimore’s son later told her that he participated in the riot because it was the only way to call attention to the constant abuse of detainees there, she said.

“They were abusing them,” she said about the staff. “They weren’t feeding them. Everything that they were supposed to be doing, they were not doing.”

After an investigation by the Department of Juvenile Justice’s Inspector General found “possibly systemic problems,” DJJ quietly replaced the operator, TrueCore Behavioral Solutions. But TrueCore is still a central player in Florida’s largely privatized juvenile justice network. It remains in charge of nine other facilities and holds contracts worth $350 million. At one of those facilities in Miami-Dade, a TrueCore staffer was arrested this year on a charge of sexually abusing a female detainee.

Department of Juvenile Justice records reviewed by the Miami Herald show that, in the months leading up to the riot, boys reported being threatened, beaten, jumped and choked by staff. All those allegations were deemed “inconclusive” or “unsubstantiated” when staff denied them, and the investigations were closed with no action taken.

One staff member allegedly broke a youth’s jaw in an unsurveilled observation cell where youths say perceived troublemakers were beaten by staff for punishment. Some youths reported being isolated just for asking to report abuse.

Youths who wanted to report staff misconduct to the state’s child abuse hotline said they were coerced into not doing so, either through threats or bribes in the form of coveted snacks.

Safety checks on youths were falsified and staff members said they faced the prospect of firing if they “snitched” on colleagues who flouted rules and procedures, investigators reported.

After the disturbance, DJJ administrators quietly relocated all the youth and renamed the facility.

Broward County Public Defender Gordon Weekes, who oversaw the office’s juvenile division before being elected to the top job last year, wrote to then-DJJ Secretary Simone Marstiller after the riot, requesting an investigation of alleged abuses at the facility. That’s the investigation that found troubling behavior by TrueCore employees, including top administrators.

Weekes told the Herald that staff members deny youths access to the abuse hotline in order to conceal problems within a facility.

“You don’t want the kids to complain,” Weekes said of officers, “so you threaten them, you take one or two of them off camera, and you rough them up to send a message to the other ones.

“So what do the kids do?” he asked. “They fight within the facility, or they riot within the facility, or they tear things in a facility so they know that somebody has to come look and see what’s going on.”

Marstiller — who now heads the state Agency for Health Care Administration — issued a statement at the time:

“The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) is entrusted with the welfare and safe keeping of the youth who reside within our programs, including those who reside in programs operated by our contracted providers. ... These incidents, along with the allegations of misconduct and abuse at the program, are appalling and unacceptable.”

She added: “Our contracted providers have a duty to ensure no harm befalls the youth in our care, and should they fail to meet that responsibility, DJJ will take action to remove youth from an unsafe environment.”

In a statement to the Herald, a TrueCore representative said: “Many of the children entrusted in our care have a multitude of challenges and we take immense pride in the trauma-responsive rehabilitation and education which our programs provide to them. Unfortunately, events have occurred at the facilities of TrueCore, as well as other providers, which sometimes overshadow the success achieved.”

Latimore’s son ultimately was relocated to Cypress Creek Juvenile Offender Correctional Center, in Lecanto, another high-security facility for male adolescents — and one also operated by TrueCore. He was scheduled to be released this past summer.

As to all of the youths accused of participating in the riot, the sheriff’s office sought warrants for each of them on riot and criminal mischief charges. But prosecutors declined to press charges, citing a lack of evidence, despite videos clearly showing detainees tossing chairs — in one case striking a staffer in the back — attempting to kick down doors and generally trashing the facility. Rights denied

During DJJ’s investigation of the disturbance, the Inspector General’s office questioned youths about whether they were allowed to report abuse and neglect, as DJJ rules require.

DJJ requires that private facility operators allow youths timely and “unhindered access” to a telephone to report maltreatment, “without intimidation or reprisal.”

When a detained youth requests access to a phone, officers must assist the youth in dialing either the Florida Department of Children & Families, for youths under 18, or DJJ’s Central Communications Center, for those who are older. The officer must step away so that the youth can speak privately — and then document the call.

At Okeechobee, however, DJJ investigators found that staff inadequately documented whether abuse calls occurred, told youths that reporting was not in their best interest, and ignored or simply denied requests.

One youth reported that he once tried to make a call to the state’s child abuse hotline to report that a supervisor had grabbed and choked him. What he got instead was an escort to an observation cell without surveillance cameras, he told investigators.

There, the youth blacked out and fell to the floor after feeling dizzy, said a report that conspicuously failed to specify what caused the youth to lose consciousness.

“He woke up with numerous staff members standing around him,” investigators wrote. “He said (the supervisor) started cutting up part of his sweater, trying to imply (the youth) had somehow tried to hang himself.”

The youth never made the abuse call. Staff had convinced him that it was best to keep quiet since they were in possession of “derogatory paperwork” about him, he told investigators later.

Another youth recalled following up with an administrator multiple times for an abuse request and being told, “you know what happened to the last two people” who reported abuse, an IG report said.

Sherice Latimore said her son told her a similar story. He said that a staff member refused his request to call the abuse hotline, and taunted him: Remember what happened to the last “jit” who asked, the officer said, using a South Florida slang word for a kid, or a young gang member.

Latimore’s son clearly viewed the remark as a threat, she said, because of the one youth who had emerged from an observation cell with a broken jaw.

The report on the investigation after the riot also mentioned the jaw-breaking allegation, noting that direct evidence was lacking because there was no surveillance footage.

Under DJJ rules, detained youths must be permitted to submit a written complaint, or grievance, to facility administrators. But when the Herald asked TrueCore leaders to produce 2020 Okeechobee grievances under the state’s public records law, the company said there weren’t any.

In its own investigation, however, DJJ’s Inspector General mentioned several grievances filed at the facility, including complaints about raw, inadequate food that caused the boys to lose weight. When asked, DJJ would not provide the Herald copies of grievances filed at the compound, instead sending a Herald reporter back to the company.

One youth told investigators there were, indeed, additional complaints filed — but that someone at the program threw them away.

That same year, the Department of Children & Families received 29 abuse reports about youths under the age of 18 at the facility. Those reports generated 10 investigations — with none of the complaints substantiated. The Herald reviewed 12 separate abuse reports from 18- to 21-year-olds that were called into DJJ’s Central Communications Center in the three months leading up to the riot.

In response to inquiries from the Herald about allegations of mistreatment at TrueCore facilities, a representative said the company has made changes since the Okeechobee riot, such as bringing meal service in-house and sending technicians to check that facilities’ phones work properly so that youths can report abuse.

“We are confident these actions have improved the morale of the children during an incredibly difficult period where they could not visit with their families due to COVID restrictions,” the representative said. Troubled track record

The relationship between TrueCore and DJJ goes back decades. The company was founded in Virginia in 1996, under the name New Century Corrections. In the ensuing quarter-century, the company changed names three times, first to Securicor New Century and then to G4S Youth Services — both instances as a subsidiary of the international private security firm G4S.

Most recently, when G4S sold G4S Youth Services to BHSB Holdings Inc., an investment group-owned juvenile healthcare provider, for $56.5 million cash, in 2017, the subsidiary’s name changed to TrueCore Behavioral Solutions, which continues to operate juvenile facilities in Texas, Tennessee and Pennsylvania as well as Florida.

Abuse reports were prolific under both ownerships.

In a 2017 investigation of Florida’s perennially troubled juvenile justice system, called Fight Club, the Herald detailed numerous allegations of excessive force at facilities in Okeechobee — as well as the rampant use of “bounties” by officers throughout the juvenile justice system to encourage youths to attack other detainees who were considered troublemakers.

One reward for youths who dispensed discipline on behalf of officers was the common honey bun, and the attacks often were referred to by youths as “honey-bunnings.” The practice had become so prevalent as to generate its own nomenclature: the target of a bounty had a “honey bun on his head.” The victim of an attack had been “honey-bunned” or the object of a “honey bun hit.”

In 2015, at a separate but nearby facility, the Okeechobee Youth Development Center, an 18-year-old became so upset over a staffer orchestrating attacks on him that he climbed on the roof of the program’s schoolhouse, a report said. It was during a violent thunderstorm. He was struck by lightning, surviving but suffering permanent hearing loss.

That same year, 17-year-old detainee Elord Revolte was beaten to death at the state-operated Miami-Dade Regional Juvenile Detention Center in what federal prosecutors alleged was an attack coordinated by a staff member.

The officer was ultimately acquitted.

Other programs run by G4S and TrueCore have brought scrutiny by police, prosecutors and parents. Some parents have filed lawsuits alleging mistreatment. In 2017, citing rundown buildings and “woefully undertrained and ill-equipped” staff, a Polk County grand jury called then-G4S-operated Highlands Youth Academy a “failure of DJJ’s mission.” That was four years after a riot at the facility, then known as Avon Park Youth Academy, left it in tatters.

The name change didn’t fix things. In 2017, three Highlands administrators were arrested on charges of child neglect, child abuse and evidence tampering. Polk County court records show that one defendant died before the charges could be adjudicated. Neither of the other two did time.

The Highlands/Avon Park TrueCore program was permanently closed in 2019.

After the Okeechobee riot resulted in TrueCore’s contract being severed there, the company offered many of the employees new placements at its other Florida facilities.

DJJ also deployed “strike teams” to TrueCore-operated facilities to, in the agency’s words, “ascertain whether these programs are providing a safe, secure and abuse-free environment that is driven by positive program culture and normalization.”

Andrea Costello, director of the Florida Institutional Legal Services Project, said DJJ provides little oversight of its contracted programs, and allows providers to simply start fresh when they’re caught abusing kids. When providers are forced to close a program, she said, “they just do exactly the same, they pop up under a different name.”

And when abuse occurs, Costello added, DJJ does a poor job of policing itself and its providers. “When they investigate themselves, they put together a team, they select the team, and then the team comes in and the team says everything is fine.”

The address that once belonged to TrueCore-operated Okeechobee Juvenile Offender Corrections Center now leads to Everglades Youth Academy, a Youth Opportunity Investments-operated program for 13- to 21-year-old boys. At least five former employees from the previous facility remained on staff there, according to rosters from both companies.

The strike teams, which consisted of Inspector General investigators and employees from the Department of Juvenile Justice’s residential division, interviewed youths at TrueCore facilities across the state — asking youths how officers treated them, and whether they felt safe.

The majority of detained youths reported feeling safe. When asked whether there was anything else they wanted to share, however, youths reported verbal and physical abuse, being prevented from filing abuse reports, having to share unsanitized electric shavers, inadequate food and staff listening in to their phone calls.

At Central Pasco Girls Academy, the strike teams wrote that a youth said staff offered her snacks and hygiene products “to cuss someone out, hit someone.”

A youth at Hastings Youth Academy said, “If the staff don’t like you, you won’t get (to make) abuse calls.”

And at Miami Girls Academy, another youth said, “Staff do not treat kids right, staff curse youth, they do not care about treatment, they are just here for a paycheck.”

At a program in Tampa, nearly one in four youths refused to participate in the survey. “I don’t want to talk to DJJ and be a snitch,” one said.

In sum, however, DJJ found “an overwhelming response from the youth that their respective program was providing a safe and secure environment,” said DJJ spokeswoman Amanda Slama. ‘You snitch, you lose your job’

The observation cells at the Okeechobee facility were created as a last resort for situations in which a youth’s sudden change in behavior could endanger himself or others. The cells were never intended as punishment, according to DJJ policy.

DJJ policy requires that youths in such isolation be continuously monitored with “safety checks” to ensure they are not in distress. Handcuffs must be removed within 15 minutes when youths are placed in observation cells if the youths remain calm.

Yet multiple youths told DJJ investigators that, on the night of the disturbance, they were left handcuffed and shackled in observation cells for hours without being observed.

By comparing safety-check reports and surveillance footage of the area near the observation cells, investigators determined that “there appeared to be a (regular) practice at times of staff recreating safety check forms.”

Investigators looking into the riot asked one youth care worker why he didn’t speak up when he saw colleagues write false statements about incidents at the facility. “Things happen when you speak out,” he said. “You snitch, you lose your job.”

Investigators said staff also manipulated situations in order to place youths in observation. In May 2020, one youth had gotten angry during a treatment session, but then calmed down enough to sit in a chair. He showed no signs of aggression on surveillance camera footage, investigators wrote.

Staff ordered him to walk to an observation cell anyway. The youth told investigators that once out of camera view, a supervisor called him a “p***y from Broward County,” punched and tackled him, pressing the left side of his jaw against the concrete floor. As the youth was beaten, he said later, one officer held him down, and another watched.

That’s the youth who was diagnosed with the fractured jaw.

But without video, it was the youth’s statement against theirs. The excessive force allegation was not sustained.

Nearly a month after the riot, an Okeechobee youth reported to his therapist that an administrator told him the program was under investigation by DJJ. The administrator made an offer: If the youth agreed to “act up” and encourage others to do the same — and place the blame on anyone but the program’s leadership — they’d be rewarded with pizza, a report said.

Other youths reported similar conversations, the report said.

On the morning of Sept. 9, 2020, staff threw the youths a pizza party, investigators wrote. And that evening, the youths “started breaking property.”

Five days later, DJJ shut the TrueCore program down “indefinitely.”

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Tribune Wire

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