Kids Claim Abuse and Violence at Juvenile Lockup Thompson Academy

Weekes, D.B.'s lawyer from the Broward Public Defender's Office, realized he needed help. His clients' complaints about Thompson were falling on deaf ears. He shared his concerns with attorneys from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a nonprofit advocacy group based in Alabama that has successfully sued juvenile detention centers.

A team of SPLC lawyers began investigating. Interviewing kids at Thompson and listening to the mothers' stories, they grew more horrified by the day. In October, they filed a federal class-action lawsuit against Youth Services, DJJ, Thompson Academy administrator Ferguson, and individual counselors on behalf of D.B., D.L., Snow's son, and two other inmates. (Davie's beating had not yet happened, and he was not one of the plaintiffs.) The suit described a violent, almost medieval place where children were beaten, raped, and deprived of food and medical attention. It alleged a slew of civil rights violations: denial of access to lawyers, physical abuse, sexual assault, failure to provide medical treatment, prison sentences extended without due process, lack of adequate meals, and negligent supervision. The plaintiffs asked for punitive monetary damages and a permanent injunction requiring Thompson officials to stop their "unlawful practices."

Days after the suit was filed, a Broward juvenile judge released D.B. from Thompson. The counselor who allegedly assaulted him was removed from contact with other inmates. Pembroke Pines police, DCF, and DJJ officials all vowed a thorough investigation.

Rep. Luis Garcia Jr. toured the embattled Thompson Academy.
Photo by House Clerk
Rep. Luis Garcia Jr. toured the embattled Thompson Academy.
Rep. Evan Jenne expressed concerns after touring Thompson Academy.
Photo by House Clerk
Rep. Evan Jenne expressed concerns after touring Thompson Academy.

Snow and the mothers of several other inmates started holding meetings and protests. They formed a group, Stop Abusing Our Kids, with the aim of getting the state to cancel Youth Services' contract for Thompson. Snow's son was released from the lockup in November. But other children who participated in the lawsuit remained, as their lawyers worked to persuade judges that they should be released.

Tensions escalated inside Thompson. According to the lawsuit, children were offered special privileges if they agreed not to speak to SPLC attorneys. When television cameras and other reporters showed up to investigate the allegations of sexual abuse, the kids were warned not to talk to anyone, Reggie claims.

On New Year's Day, Davie was attacked and sent to the hospital. The beating became a vivid symbol of the spiraling violence inside Thompson.

Reggie, who now had a 6-month-old baby to care for, spent her days and nights in the hospital. Wild-eyed with anger and exhaustion, she showed up at the African-American Research Library and Cultural Center in Fort Lauderdale on January 7, carrying a blown-up photo of Davie's bruised, swollen face.

She and other members of the Stop Abusing Our Kids group were there to speak at a public meeting of the Broward delegation of state legislators. Standing in front of the auditorium stage, they formed a solemn line of seven women, wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the plea: "Cancel the Contract." One by one, they stepped up to the microphone.

"The youth at this facility are being abused," began Ms. Snow.

"My son is harassed and discriminated [against] because he does not speak English," said another woman.

"My son was sexually assaulted twice," said a tiny woman with braided hair, D.B.'s mom. "He also tried to commit suicide twice."

Then came Reggie, barely able to contain her tears.

"My son got beat. He cannot talk. My son is in severe pain. And I want something done."

The lawmakers listened sympathetically. They vowed to write a letter to DJJ, demanding an immediate investigation. But it seemed a hollow crusade. The state was already investigating, and it wasn't going well.

A few days before the Broward delegation meeting, a Pembroke Pines police officer had finished his investigation of D.B.'s sexual assault allegations. It was clear he had a tough time trusting a juvenile delinquent's word over that of a prison guard. The cop concluded that the accusations were "unfounded."

"There is no evidence to show that a sexual battery occurred," he wrote.

But his report raised almost as many questions as it answered. He admitted that the investigation had been hampered because Thompson didn't report the alleged attacks when they occurred. Instead, officials waited until the lawsuit was filed — when any physical evidence would be gone. When questioned, staff members had trouble remembering what happened, and their version of events didn't jibe with D.B.'s recollection.

"Due to the poor records keeping by the staff at the Thompson Academy, additional investigative inquiries and obtaining of evidence could not be made to compare to the allegations being alleged," the officer wrote.

The counselor accused of assaulting D.B. disputed the claims and "absolutely denied asking the victim to perform oral sex on him on any occasion."

Meanwhile, the police officer said he had "severe credibility concerns" about D.B. He noted that at one point during questioning, "the victim said that he didn't mind performing oral sex on the suspect," the officer wrote. D.B. added that "this was part of a plan where he intended to sue the suspect for doing what he did."

Here was the essential challenge for all the officials investigating complaints at Thompson: The victims were kids with criminal records. The suspects were poorly paid prison guards with the unenviable job of trying to manage rebellious teenagers. Without objective evidence to examine, whom should they believe?

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Rhette Michaels
Rhette Michaels

Why doesn't the state put someone in undercover? It'd get to the bottom of the doubts faster than a dozen trips by "politickers". If the lawyers pretended enough to accept the case, they definitely ought to know what a order of protection is...that would get the offending parties away from the kids. Personally, I hate the thought of 'for profit' institutions. They've got NO incentive to get them out of the system while they're making a buck from them.


this stuff dates back to 2004(thompson academy). there exists info that clearly states that these issues and others were put in writing that are quite similar to what's in this report. the question to ask is/was DJJ in bed with the provider. there are people who know.