Last February, as Chris Hanley rode with his stepbrother to a neighborhood video store, Sunrise police pulled over their white Pontiac Grand Am. Hanley's stepbrother had run a red light, and when the cops ran a background check on the two, they discovered that the 17-year-old Hanley not only had a lengthy juvenile rap sheet but was currently in violation of a court-ordered house arrest. Now, instead of taking in a few new releases with his family, Hanley began another spin through the juvenile justice system.
At his court date the next day, the judge confirmed Hanley's worst fears. Because of his long list of priors, the infraction would cost him another five days of his life at the Broward County Juvenile Detention Center. This would be the fourth time the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) had remanded Hanley to a secure detention facility.
Despite his experience with the system, Hanley was devastated. He'd stayed out of trouble for the previous year and a half, and the thought of returning to the center terrified him. "It took every ounce of me to get him to face it," his mother, Sandra Renninger, remembers. "I kept telling him, "This is your last time there. Your last time ever.'"
More than half a year later, Renninger and Hanley quietly talk about his experiences at the center while sitting across from each other on the living room couch. Outside, an evening rain drizzles the streets of their modest Sunrise neighborhood as the rest of their clan settles in for the night. Hanley's six-month-old daughter gurgles from a navy blue stroller while Nickelodeon murmurs cartoons from the television. His girlfriend reads at a black lacquered dining room table; his preteen sister bops about the house answering the phone and petting his yellow pit bull puppy. Table lamps light the room with a cozy glow, and a china cabinet displays porcelain figurines and family snapshots.
A lanky six feet, two inches tall, with his baseball cap cocked at a rakish angle over his blond buzz cut, Hanley doesn't look or act like the kind of kid who intimidates easily. He's a bit reticent, perhaps out of shame, when he discusses his life of petty crime, a litany of charges ranging from alcohol possession to credit card fraud. Hardened as he might seem, he says his previous trips to the center had scared him straight.
"It had been two years since I got in trouble," says Hanley. "I stopped two years ago. I had all this stuff behind me...." his voice trails off, and he shakes his head. "I don't want to be in that place anymore."
Considering what he experienced during his incarcerations at the center, the sentiment is understandable. Hanley's account of life in juvie lockup describes a facility fraught with violence, filth, and a seemingly callous disregard for the well-being of the youthful offenders therein. He knows he wasn't being sent to summer camp, but Hanley says the experience went beyond just punishment and had nothing at all to do with rehabilitation. Daily life at the center, he says, was dominated by ganglike fights, overcrowding, unsanitary toilets, and an overworked and jaded staff.
His tales of woe are distressingly familiar. Almost since its inception, the Broward County Regional Juvenile Detention Center has faced the dual challenges of a booming population and a shrinking budget. Within the past two decades, juvenile-services advocates have first condemned the center as a failure, then lauded it as a model. Some observers and even some former employees of the center say that the problems that plagued the bad old days have returned.
Today the DJJ's stated goal is not to save troublesome children from themselves but to protect the public from these dangerous youths. Child advocates say the department has it backward and should once again shift its focus to helping these kids. Because detention centers are typically juvie offenders' first contact with incarceration, many advocates feel that these facilities waste the opportunity to provide kids with any kind of fostering or rehabilitation.
What children get instead is a dangerous place to cool their heels while waiting for court dates.Built in 1980, the center sits wedged between Broward Boulevard and the concrete underbelly of I-95. Its façade hasn't changed much since then. It still resembles most prisons. Barbed wire, drab paint, a lone flagpole sprouting from the front parking lot: a dismal place built for the sole purpose of imprisoning juvenile offenders, some as young as ten years old.
By the late '80s, some serious problems plagued the facility. To begin with, the detainee population was disproportionately black and Hispanic. The out-of-whack ratio contradicted one of the mandates of the 1976 Federal Juvenile Justice Act, which sought to prevent overrepresentation of minority youths in detention. Worse yet, admissions to the center increased at an alarming rate, mostly because, at the time, detention criteria for youths were loosely defined; children could be incarcerated for truancy, shoplifting, and other smalltime offenses. In fact, throughout the decade, the number of kids referred to detention centers across Florida increased by almost 50 percent.
Broward's JDC was no exception. Studies revealed that most youths held were arrested for minor crimes and posed little threat to the public. Some 90 percent of the kids incarcerated at the center were nonviolent or misdemeanor offenders. Some 15 juveniles a month were admitted only because they were homeless and had nowhere else to go.
Designed to house 109 kids, the center averaged 160 inmates by 1987, with detainees numbering close to 200 on occasion. Poorly lit and already cramped cells were packed with three or more children, with staff unable to enter cells and break up the inevitable brawling because of mattresses jammed against doors. "The circumstances sounded pretty egregious," says Michael Dale, a board member of the Youth Law Center and law professor at Nova Southeastern University. Dale was one of four attorneys who in 1987 brought a civil-rights class-action suit on behalf of present and future children confined at Broward's JDC.
During its investigation the Youth Law Center found children sleeping on floors with blankets stained with feces. In the evening hours, the center shut off running water in cells, and staff refused to provide kids with toilet paper because they didn't want detainees clogging sinks and toilets. Juveniles were confined to their cells for as many as 20 hours per day without exercise, and extended periods of isolation were commonplace.
Chronic understaffing and acts of violence and physical abuse were widespread. During a five-month period, Dale recalls roughly 25 separate incidents requiring hospitalization, primarily for broken bones. Detainees feared for their safety. And their lives.
"There were problems with visitation, with education, with mental-health services," says Dale. "The physical plant needed upgrading; there were problems with food, cleanliness. We tried to correct these living conditions."
And they did. Three years of legal wrangling finally led to a settlement. Florida lawmakers joined in, passing the 1990 Juvenile Justice Reform Act, which ensured that options like home detention and alternative community programs were available for underage offenders. The number of qualified staff and health workers increased. Negotiations with the Broward County School Board brought about daytime classes for detainees. Management brought in books, along with a bill of rights for the kids. Ultimately the court ordered the center to provide detainees with outdoor exercise, recreation, and religious services.
As a solution to overcrowding, the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (now known as the Department of Children and Families) stopped locking up kids for nonviolent offenses. By the time the suit was settled in the early '90s, the average daily population at the center had dwindled to approximately 70 kids.
The changes implemented were so successful that for a while Broward's Juvenile Detention Center served as a model for other counties around the nation and Florida's detention facility admissions dropped by a significant 13 percent. Overcrowding and its subsequent horrific effects seemed to be a thing of the past.
The 1993 murder of British tourist Gary Colley in northern Florida also proved to be a death sentence for juvenile justice reform. Four juveniles were arrested for the crime, and the killing branded Florida as an unsafe state that needed to get tough on criminals. Even children.
In 1994 legislators eliminated many of the earlier reforms. Detention criteria were once again broadened, giving intake workers the discretion to detain a child even if his or her charge didn't merit referral to a center. Admissions to Florida's detention centers and average daily populations again began to climb. Juvenile justice operations were assigned to a newly created outfit, the Department of Juvenile Justice, with a new credo: "To protect the public by reducing juvenile crime and delinquency."
And that, Dale says, is part of what's wrong with Florida's juvenile justice system. "You have a department which has a philosophy that's primarily geared towards protection of the public and punishment of children," says Dale. "[The] directive... is simply to incarcerate children."
That's exactly what's happening. For the 199899 fiscal year, more than 54,000 kids were admitted into secure facilities, almost double the annual number of admissions at the beginning of the decade. A whopping 92 percent are either Hispanic or black. Broward's center mirrors this trend, both in volume and ethnicity. An estimated 80 percent of the facility's detainees are black, and the number of kids filling the center continues to balloon. In 199899, more than 4500 Broward County youths were transferred to the facility -- a number that's almost doubled since the early '90s.
A get-tough policy has not been the only factor in the flood of youngsters behind bars. A 1995 to 1999 study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a national group that seeks justice for young offenders, points out that during the latter half of the decade, Florida reduced spending on juvenile justice even as juvie crime rates rose.
Despite the cleanup spurred by the settlement and the DJJ's promised monitoring, Broward's center is once again overcrowded, with the months of May, June, and July averaging a daily population of 150. The DJJ reports that this facility has been overcrowded now for 16 consecutive months and for 20 of the past 24 months.
"Who cares about these kids?" asks a dismayed Michael Dale. "Who is the spokesperson for these children? They don't even have the degree of support that foster kids get. These are the criminals, and they're overwhelmingly black and poor. So who cares? Nobody. It's plain and simple as that."It was bad enough that Chris Hanley got himself into the juvenile justice system at all. And its devolution in the late '90s only compounded his misfortunes.
After his parents divorced in 1998, Hanley ran off with his father. Virtually all of his crimes, ranging from a dozen petty crimes like possession of alcohol to a handful of more serious infractions, were committed while in his dad's custody. The two frequently moved from one Florida town to another -- thus violating Hanley's probation. His dad's own rap sheet includes aggravated stalking and strong-arm robbery, and DJJ reports deem him as a core factor in his son's illegal activities. "Christopher's father was in a lot of trouble," his mother, Sandra Renninger, says. "I just didn't see what was going on until it was too late. And I just couldn't control [Chris]. I tried church counseling, everything."
At 15 years old, while serving a seven-day sentence for resisting arrest without violence, Hanley endured his first beating at the Juvenile Detention Center. Upon his arrival he was thrown into a holding cell with a half-dozen other offenders, who proceeded to pummel him. Although detainees should remain in holding cells for only a few hours, Hanley says he was held there overnight without food or supervision. He left with bruises and a bloodied face.
This was not the last time he got roughed up by other kids at the center. "Getting jumped happens a lot there," he says matter-of-factly. "I've seen a lot of kids that can't stand up for themselves go in there and get the shit beaten out of them. I've seen kids taken to the hospital before."
His mother clearly recalls the telltale signs of his incarceration. "When I went to see him, several times I could see physical signs of fighting on his face. He always came back thin, pale, marked. There were several times when I'd visit where I'd voice my opinion to the officer sitting there. [They] just said, "There's nothing I can do,'" says Renninger.
Despite his injuries, an asthma condition, and a dripping ear infection, Hanley says the medical attention he got at the center never amounted to more than a few aspirin. His mother often tried bringing him a nebulizer for the asthma or other medication from the family pediatrician but was repeatedly denied. Several times she attempted to visit her son, only to be turned away without any explanation. "I felt like it was due to the fact that I had outwardly complained," she recalls.
Overcrowding and filth further burden a sloppily run administration. Hanley says that typically three or even four juveniles are packed into 7-by-11-foot cells that should house only two kids at a time. The surplus gets to sleep on the floor, wedged between the two concrete slabs that serve as box springs for their roommates' thin mattresses. A dirty strip of window offers a peek of sunlight, and at night a bright light remains on inside the cell while kids try to sleep.
Detainees receive a fresh change of clothes only about once a week, and the toilets back up constantly. When feces flood the cells, staff does nothing.
"My [cell] was flooded up, and I told the guards, "Let me out, there's shit floating in here,' and they said, "You have to sleep there for the night.' They wouldn't let me out," says Hanley.
Inmates can fill out grievance forms about conditions, but Hanley says that acquiring the paperwork can be difficult. After he spent the entire night in an open sewer, Hanley finally convinced someone to bring him a form. "They pushed it under the door and said, "Try to find a pencil.' There was nothing I could do about that."
Hanley adds that staff was arbitrary about granting and revoking inmates' privileges. Staff would strip allotted exercise and phone time from some youths while allowing others to break rules with contraband cigarettes and candy.
According to procedure detainees should receive an hour of outdoor exercise, a prudent measure for a facility teeming with youths ready to blow off some steam. But Hanley says everyone's time gets cut if anyone is caught fighting or if the guards decide that it's too hot outside. And he refers to schooling as "a joke."
"Nobody really does anything," Hanley says. "There's no real class. Teachers just come in there, you sit down, and they give you a paper and a pencil and let you do what you want. Sometimes they give forms, like worksheets, but they're like kindergarten level. That's about it," he says.
But Hanley's most lasting impressions of the center were made by the fists of his fellow detainees. "Every time I've been there, there's always been violence all around," he adds.At a Denny's on Oakland Park Boulevard, the smell of bacon and butter fills the bustling dining room. A waitress approaches a corner table by the window, asking for the group's orders, but finds no takers. The three former employees of the Broward Regional Juvenile Detention Center aren't here to eat. They're here to share unappetizing stories about their erstwhile workplace.
One by one Martin Newton, Le Shawne Watts, and Joniece Frazier say they wrestled with many of the same problems that ex-inmate Chris Hanley suffered: overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, an overburdened staff. All three were recently fired because of charges ranging from insubordination to failure to file internal reports, but all believe they were actually fired because they spoke out against the sorry state of the center -- on behalf of both the employees and the kids.
A seven-year veteran detention officer at the Broward facility, the 47-year-old Newton is a London transplant with an easy demeanor. But when he describes the center, the pitch of his soft voice rises and he's barely able to sit still while he speaks. Newton claims he witnessed what was once a well-run outfit become mired in conditions he calls "deplorable."
Newton says that so many kids now jam the center that, more often than not, toilets block up and the smell of feces is so strong detainees beg to be let out of their cells. "Quite often, when the smell gets unbearable, they start banging and kicking the door, screaming, "I ain't going back in this place,'" he says.
Newton adds that the number of detainees usually exceeds the number of uniforms and underwear available, and sometimes administrators lock kids in their cells in the middle of the day so the staff can collect soiled garments and wash them while kids sit around naked and wait. When Tallahassee officials visit, though, the center does manage to clean up its act. "You see things you've never seen before," Newton says. "Fifty new uniforms and underclothes appear that the staff has been asking for for weeks. New shoes, new socks. The whole place becomes incredibly efficient. Then, after they leave, it's back to the norm."
The crowding and unsanitary conditions ignite tempers, he says, with youths lashing out at one another and staff out of anger or frustration. Although the DJJ recommends a staff-to-detainee ratio of one to eight, Newton says the proportion is usually closer to one to twenty. The understaffing makes it almost impossible to control or prevent violent outbreaks.
"They're supposed to provide a safe and secure environment. That doesn't happen. The kids are put more in danger in the "secure unit' than they are outside," he alleges.
Which can also endanger the staff. Newton claims he sustained a knee injury while breaking up a fight between two kids over clean underwear. He says one of the youths was a nephew of the assistant superintendent of the facility, Janice Richardson-Walker. Newton states Walker accused him of hitting her nephew with a walkie-talkie during the skirmish. But Newton claims that, as a member of the night shift, he didn't carry a radio. When he attempted to explain this to Walker, he says, she simply issued a written reprimand and threatened him.
"She told me she was going to get me for hitting on her people," says Newton.
Walker is no stranger to giving -- or receiving -- threats. Between 1996 and 1997, her husband Dwight Walker and his then-girlfriend Shavawn Peterson filed three separate domestic-violence complaints against the assistant superintendent in Broward County Circuit Court. Peterson alleged that Walker stalked her at her home and attacked her, swinging at her with her fists and scratching her face, shoulders, and chest. Peterson's petitions also claim Walker subsequently pulled a screwdriver from her purse and attempted to stab her.
Dwight Walker claimed that, on a separate occasion, his wife attacked him and Peterson with a knife after knocking his glasses from his face and breaking them. He also reported that his wife visited him at his job and physically attacked him when he refused to speak with her.
One of the complaints was dismissed. The other two convinced the court to issue restraining orders against Janice Richardson-Walker, who filed her own petition against her husband. Ultimately the court ordered the two to stay away from each other for one full year, from January 1997 to January 1998.
All juvenile justice employees are subject to background screenings to verify whether they meet the department's established standards for good moral character. Domestic violence is specifically mentioned as a potential problem. Restraining orders don't automatically disqualify someone from working with children at the center, but management has the right to decide whether such an incident qualifies as conduct unbecoming an officer, with possible disciplinary action to follow.
Walker's boss, regional detention director Ron Fryer, the former superintendent of the center, says he is aware of Walker's penchant for brandishing sharp implements, but he nevertheless considers her an exemplary employee.
"Mistakes happen in life, but that doesn't make the person a bad person," says Fryer. Walker declined to comment, but according to Fryer she and her husband have reconciled.
Martin Newton also has a history of domestic violence: two restraining orders to keep away from his ex-wife. Last July, after dropping a friend off at a house near his ex-wife's place, Newton was arrested after his ex called police reporting Newton was in violation of his order because of his proximity to her. He says he immediately informed Walker of the incident. He also says he told his immediate supervisor of another arrest, a few months later, that was also connected to his ongoing dispute with his ex-wife. The department fired Newton on July 24 and cited unbecoming conduct and failure to report the arrests as the chief reasons for his dismissal.
Joniece Frazier and Le Shawne Watts say management picked on them as well. Both had worked as community youth leaders (CYLs) for the past four years, and both gripe that the administration didn't allow them to help kids in trouble. These caseworkers, who until last year were stationed at the center, claim that management was more interested in meeting quotas than servicing kids. Frazier, age 39, even observed many of the staff members napping during night shifts instead of making rounds and supervising detainees.
Typically CYLs visit kids in home detention and electronically monitor those who are under house arrest. Frazier recalls how, initially, she visited her kids a few times a day, often giving them rides to court, counseling them, and guiding families to community programs that could provide them with economic aid or even clothing.
"Now it's so different," she sighs. "You can't do any of that. You go in, ask how everything's going, then it's, "Here, sign this.' You don't have any time to do anything. You think, Why am I doing this? This is not productive."
Both women report that, during their tenure with the DJJ, their caseloads inflated from 10 to 15, sometimes as high as 30. In addition to making visits and monitoring, CYLs also juggle office duties. Crushing paperwork further detracts from time that could be spent assisting kids, and caseworkers are under constant threat of losing their jobs if they don't meet bureaucratic demands. "I wrote a memo indicating that, with a caseload of that magnitude, it was almost guaranteed that problems would come up," says Watts.
Frazier adds that, when she expressed concern about simply getting kids' signatures in lieu of mentoring, she was told all that mattered was that the visits were made.
"It's highly, highly frustrating," she seethes. "You're not really doing what the job was initially designed to do: make daily contact with these kids." She says the kids need to know that their CYL is the person who will be coming into their home, their school, their job. "[We need to be] the one that's going to sit down with them and make them reflect upon what they did wrong, what choices they made, but you can't address any of that," she laments.
On July 31 Watts was fired, ostensibly for taking home case files -- a practice she claims is commonplace among CYLs. Frazier got the boot a week later; her transgressions included missing work and failure to file a report on the sleeping detention worker she spotted. But the women believe they were targeted after management's lackadaisical attitudes drove them to write letters to DJJ officials. Frazier even visited Perry Anderson, Broward's juvenile justice manager, after discovering a fellow CYL falsifying visitation forms that CYLs offer their juvenile clients for signatures after a visit.
"I showed it to him, and he seemed very interested," says Frazier. "Nothing came of it. They blew it all off."
"I am not a disgruntled employee," adds the 34-year-old Watts, who still keeps a copy of the document. "I just don't believe in unethical practices." Administration at the detention center says that it conducted an investigation of the CYL who had falsified the visitation forms; the employee received a written reprimand.
Newton has filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and plans to sue the department for unfair dismissal. Frazier has contacted both the EEOC and the NAACP, as well as appealing her firing through the DJJ in Tallahassee.
Watts has filed a union grievance against the department. Union leaders say that all three employees' allegations are nothing new for the Department of Juvenile Justice.
"The DJJ, across the board, is a very troubled agency," says Elizabeth Judd, a local representative of the American Federation of State and County Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Judd says she's spoken to several Broward detention center employees within the past six months, and that many of the same complaints keep cropping up.
"They're not listening to these employees. They're trying to wipe them out because [they] are whistle-blowing," says Judd. "I question the ethical integrity of that organization. If you're not effective at dealing with employees, then how can those same employees provide services for juveniles?"Ron Fryer strides about the Broward County Juvenile Detention Center confidently, with an obvious pride. Dressed smartly in a white shirt, an olive vest, and slacks, the superintendent points out the glossy new corridor tiles, the spotless stainless steel kitchen. The gray linoleum floors are well mopped, common areas like classrooms and the recreation room smell like ammonia and appear spotless. Scotch-taped to hallway walls are posters kids have fashioned with magazine cutouts of black cultural icons like Maya Angelou and Althea Gibson.
Fryer, onetime superintendent of the Broward center who last month was given responsibility for all such centers in South Florida, readily admits that the facility has its shortcomings. "We need additional classroom space, a gym. I'd love to have additional staff," he says. Still he's quick to point out that the department recently gave the Broward center "deemed status," which is bureaucrat-speak for "keep up the good work."
Reclining in his burgundy leather chair, Fryer, a tall and large-framed man, sits in an office that displays the trappings of a leader. Plaques honoring his 20-year career with the DJJ cover his walls, and portraits of Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X hang neatly behind his desk. Fryer's satisfaction with this facility is such that he views the 1987 lawsuit as a victory for the detention center, preferring to recall the outcome of the suit than the dismal conditions that prompted it. "We are an international model because of [that] federal lawsuit," he boasts.
Fryer refutes virtually all the allegations Chris Hanley, the ex-employees, and juvenile justice advocates have made against the center. He says that kids aren't packed into cells and that they are always fed, no matter what their infraction or what time they're admitted into the center. He has received no report of contraband smoking or detainees forced to remain in cells with backed-up toilets. Fryer claims that detainees receive clean uniforms three times a week and clean undergarments daily. Kids who are on prescription medication receive their dosages from the medical staff.
Yet he concedes that community youth leader caseloads are high and that the job is a tough one. And despite settlement agreements to the contrary, he admits to the center's overcrowding, a condition he says can cause volatile situations. Once again kids sleep on mattresses placed on the floors of common areas and isolation rooms. Although kids can be held for a maximum of only 30 days at the center, sometimes they languish there for months while waiting for slots to open in community treatment programs. And the tide of children keeps pouring in.
"The fact that it's so easy to get in crowds things," says Frank Orlando, a retired juvenile justice judge and current director of the Center For the Study of Youth Policy. Onboard during mediation talks for the 1987 lawsuit, Orlando points to the legislature's subsequent backpedaling on admitting procedures as key to the center's out-of-control population.
"Now the criteria allow kids to be detained who never would have gotten through the door before," says Orlando, who believes that Fryer's attempts to grapple with overcrowding are hindered by a legislature more interested in political quick fixes than the rehabilitation of children. The result? A statewide epidemic of overcrowding at centers, a condition that affects almost every facet of operations, from basic services like bathroom access and clean laundry to more frightening aspects like increases in violence and suicidal behavior.
"What the state is spending should shock the taxpayer," Orlando says. He estimates the department spends $190 per day for each detained child. Incarceration, which includes detention centers and residential programs, constitute more than 56 percent of the department's $634 million annual budget. Only 12 percent goes toward prevention. "It's not cost-effective, and it has nothing to do with crime prevention," Orlando states.
Fryer is worried enough about costs and soaring admissions that he's contacted juvenile advocates several times about the problem. Michael Dale speculates that what Fryer seeks is a willing third party to convince the DJJ to address the issue.
"He's reached out to us," says Dale. "He cares about the children, but there are forces he can't control. He can't turn off the spigot of kids coming in." Dale says he's heard staff at the center express increasing concern about the conditions in the facility.
"If they don't get support, it makes it increasingly difficult to do a good job. If all you keep doing is dumping large numbers [of kids] in and there's no affirmative efforts for responding to kids, interacting with them, supporting them, it makes the place go into the ground."Chris Hanley no longer needs or wants anything from the Department of Juvenile Justice. Today he works full-time as a dog trainer at a local kennel. He's looking forward to reinstating his driver's license and earning his GED. At night, instead of getting into trouble, he helps his mother with the dinner dishes and plays with his daughter. Sandra Renninger says her remarriage and close-knit family have helped her son turn his life around.
The DJJ agrees. In a recent report on Hanley, the department declares that "the mother and the mother's husband have created a strong supportive relationship" and that "Christopher has become a responsible and productive citizen of our society."
Renninger now tries to put her son's ordeals behind her and believes his most recent stint at the center is the last of her son's brushes with the law. But she still can't forget the way Hanley looked when he left the facility this final time: pale and drawn, as he was on other release dates. Her memories are vivid. When she talks about his imprisonment, she often presses a hand to her cheek or forehead in distress. She says she feared for her son's life during his time at Broward's detention center. "Seeing him in that place... I thought I would die," she states. "Sometimes he would lash out in anger towards me. Sometimes he would just cry. "You don't understand,' he'd say. "They'll kill me in here.'"
"I thought that something was going to happen to him while he was there," she says. "I realize he did something to be there, but still, they're underage. They're children."
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