Miami Beach state Rep. Luis Garcia Jr. last week got a rare glimpse inside the Pembroke Pines juvenile detention center, where teenagers allege they were physically and sexually abused.
Touring the cinder-block, industrial-gray building that houses Thompson Academy, Garcia was not impressed. He saw walls that appeared to be freshly painted and doused with bleach. He saw guards in baggy shorts who looked "like bouncers in a nightclub."
"These counselors look more like inmates than counselors," he says. "If you want to be a role model, you have to look like a role model."
Garcia was particularly concerned that only one staff member, a psychologist, spoke Spanish and could communicate with the Latino inmates. He also wasn't convinced the staff was capable of keeping the 145 teenaged boys at the facility safe.
"I don't think the staff is prepared to handle them, especially the Hispanics," he says.
Garcia started writing letters to Gov. Charlie Crist about Thompson last December, when parents in the Stop Abusing Our Kids advocacy group told him their sons were being mistreated at the publicly funded lockup. Last fall, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a federal lawsuit alleging that one teenager had been choked and slammed into a wall by a Thompson guard and that another was twice forced to perform oral sex on a male counselor.
"I am respectfully asking for the State to determine if there is any merit to these parents' claims; and if merit is found to take swift action to rectify the situation," Garcia wrote on December 22.
Investigators for the state Department of Children and Families did not find any evidence to support the abuse allegations. But officials are still examining the case of a 17-year-old boy who was beaten unconscious by other teenagers at the facility this January.
When he heard about that fight, Garcia grew even more worried. "Even juvenile delinquents have the same rights that you and I have to safety, and I don't think they're getting that at the Thompson Academy," he says.
Tomorrow, Garcia has scheduled a meeting with officials from Youth Services International, a Sarasota-based, for-profit company that has a $14.8 million state contract to run Thompson. The Stop Abusing Our Kids group has asked the state to cancel the contract, but Garcia, a former fire chief, says that's not his main priority.
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"I'm not looking to hurt any company," he says. "My interest is kids."
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