Group homes throughout Broward County — where some juvenile offenders are sent in lieu of jail — have seen violence, drug use, and constant runaway problems. On Friday, the Fort Lauderdale Police captain for the district where one group home called Crescent House is located told a magistrate that whenever a burglary happens in the neighborhood, his officers automatically go to Crescent House, assuming the culprit came from there. The captain recounted the last time he visited the facility, at midnight on a school night. The residents were all awake, not in bed, and began blasting “Fuck the Police” when he arrived. Crescent has become an unsupervised free-for-all with a lack of oversight.
New Times' past reporting has illuminated the ongoing problems at several Broward County group homes. Last Friday, at Fort Lauderdale City Hall, a hearing was held to decide the fate of the Crescent House group home. Friday’s hearing was the second in six weeks to determine whether the facility can be closed down as a nuisance or represents a violation of the city’s code. A decision is expected to come this Thursday.
There are several layers of bureaucracy in the way group homes are funded and structured. The state's Department of Children and Families (DCF) has passed off the care and housing of troubled kids to contractors – in Broward County, the contractor is ChildNet – that in turn ink deals with privately run subcontractors to provide housing and services for the kids.
Three hours into the magistrate's hearing Friday, some accidental irony highlighted the dubious logic propping up the state's public-private approach to child services.
Speaking in support of Crescent House, Dennis Miles, managing director for the southeast region of DCF, took to the microphone to urge the city magistrate not to close the beleaguered group home despite the protests of the city and neighbors. Miles began his short comments by acknowledging that in Broward, the child services system is unique in that it is completely privatized. He then, in the next sentence or so, acknowledged that the home’s residents were all locals, from Broward: “We take care of our own,” Miles said.
Now, how a public official could acknowledge the complete privatization of a government service, and then in the same breath talk about “taking care of our own” without seeing that privatization is the exact opposite of this – that’s worth a groan. But on a deeper level, that line of thinking illustrates how DCF and its business partners, ChildNet and Chrysalis Health, have their heads so deep in the public-private sand they’ve lost touch with common sense.
There were many moments like that — groaners — throughout New Times' continued coverage of Broward’s public-private business arrangement. The setup often is a recipe for chaos.
On Friday, Ed Lacasa, chief operations officer and general counsel of Chrysalis — the company that operates Crescent House — went out of his way to point out that the facility is completely in compliance with the staff requirements set out by the state. In fact, it goes beyond the requirements. Staff also testified about policies for searching residents and reporting them missing. They have no legal authority to restrain the kids or lock them in. There is only so much they can do.
The testimony was meant to prove that the facility is not “unsupervised” or a “free-for-all,” as some critics have claimed.
But if you aim common sense at the situation, those standards look like jokes, the bare minimum. And we’re not talking about engine emissions. We’re talking about kids. But this public-private setup is all about allowing providers to check off the appropriate boxes: "Yup, we’re in compliance!" — and go home for the night.
Say you hire a babysitter to take care of your kids while you and your significant other go out on the town on a school night. You come home and the kids are still awake, blasting “Fuck the Police” from the stereo at midnight. Or maybe they’re not even at the house anymore — your kids have scrambled up the back wall, out into the streets. "What the hell?" you ask the babysitter. He or she shrugs, saying, "Sorry, it’s not like I could physically restrain them."
No doubt these staffers work hard. They care for the kids and feel they’re doing their best – absolutely. But it’s hard to look at the situation and not think we could do better, right?
The convoluted thinking propping up this system is like the cult’s Kool Aid – once you’ve drunk it, you’re a believer, and you can’t back off on that belief or the whole system crashes. The best example of this is an email obtained by New Times that was sent out by Cindy Arenberg Seltzer, the head of the Children’s Services Council of Broward County this month. It urges providers and staffers to show up for last Friday’s hearing.
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if the city is successful in their attempts, this could set a precedent that would have much larger implications for other group care providers operating in Fort Lauderdale, as well as those operating in other local communities. We know other cities in Broward and around the state are watching. If Ft. Lauderdale is successful, it could set off a chain reaction that could be disastrous for our system of care, and more importantly for our children.
It's telling how that sentence is constructed – “system of care” coming before “more importantly for our children.” For sure, any radical shake-up, the system would have short-term negative effects on children, but what about long-term? Why don’t we want to have the best and highest standards for our group homes? Above and beyond the current setup? That email is right – children have a lot to lose here. But it's disingenuous not to acknowledge who else has a lot to lose —- so much to lose that they’re coming out in force for the hearing: the providers.
This point really couldn’t have been hammered home any better on Friday. As at a wedding or murder trial, the audience was divided by the center aisle: Crescent House’s neighbors, the ones pushing the city to shutter the facility, filled one side of the room; the facility’s supporters sat on the other. Many of the facility’s supporters were still wearing their work ID badges. There wasn’t a person there under 30.
No residents – the kids who will be displaced by Crescent’s closing or continue to live there – were brought along for the hearing. It would have been nice to have heard from them.