Dying Teen’s Pleas for Help Ignored by Callous Juvenile Justice Employees: Report
The firings of Department of Juvenile Justice employees who failed to call for help for a teen who later died were justified, the agency’s inspector general said in a report released Friday.
The inspector general’s report into the July 2011 death of 18-year-old Eric Perez at a youth lock-up, was essentially in agreement with earlier grand jury findings that supervisors, guards and a nurse at the Palm Beach Regional Detention Center ignored signs that Perez was ill for more than six hours after he suffered two blows to the head during “horseplay” with guards. Witnesses said the guards were searching Perez and other detainees for unauthorized snacks.
The youth died of a cerebral hemorrhage.
The IG’s report found that DJJ employees failed to call for help because they thought Perez was faking his illness. One witness described hearing a supervisor say he would not transport Perez to Columbia Hospital to avoid filling out an incident report.
“I think about Eric every day,” said DJJ Secretary Wansley Walters. “His death continues to be a very painful memory for this agency. While I hope that Eric’s family has found closure, we will continue to improve what we do every day with him in mind.”
While the March 2012 Palm Beach County grand jury report was scathing, it also concluded that criminal charges couldn’t be filed against the guards because there was no basis for doing so in state law.
In April, Gov. Rick Scott signed HB 173, giving DJJ the authority to pay the funeral expenses in some cases if a child dies in the agency’s custody, after the state at first said it didn’t have authority to do so in Perez’ case. Eventually, the state paid Perez’ family $5,000 toward his $7,600 funeral expenses.
As to policy, Walters noted that the Palm Beach lock-up’s telephone system was reconfigured to allow detainees to make free calls to legal counsel, child welfare officers, probation officers and the Florida Department of Children and Families Abuse Hotline.
The agency has also put in place a better screening tool to determine whether a potential employee is suited for working with youth in detention.
And DJJ Assistant Secretary for Detention Services Julia Strange has developed a yearly audit to ensure that the agency’s employees comply with its policies and procedures.
David Utter, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center who has sued other Florida youth facilities, said it’s too soon to tell whether the agency’s efforts will change its employees’ treatment of youthful offenders.
“The only thing I can say that has changed is the DJJ’s legislative budget request for 2013-14 asks for substantial resources for upgrades to detention facilities and even money for new facilities to replace what everyone knows are aged structures,” Utter said.
The agency is in the process of diverting low-risk youth to community programs and cutting the number of residential beds.
Scott, in a January 2012 op-ed, wrote that the state has spent millions of dollars on interventions for youth who would probably never re-offend, revealing “significant inefficiencies.”
Such policies “consume scarce resources that could instead be invested in community-based sanctions that hold youth accountable, protect public safety, create jobs and promote healthy futures for children,” Scott wrote. “Community-based sanctions are more effective at reducing juvenile crime and cost much less than correctional institutions.”
by Margie Menzel