Cover story: Kids claim abuse at juvenile lockup
Our colleague Lisa Rab has moved away from Broward County, but one of the most important issues she covered for New Times is still unresolved. Circuit court judges are still trying to figure out what to do about Thompson Academy, a privately run jail for boys in Pembroke Pines that has faced a spate of abuse and negligence allegations.
The harshest criticisms come from the Broward public defender's office, where Assistant Public Defender Gordon Weekes has been drawing attention to abuse claims for years.
Now a three-judge panel has convened to consider paying closer attention to the jail -- but say they need more time, since Weekes handed them 11 more affidavits of abuse on Thursday.
The facility's operator, Youth Services International, claims its operations are squeaky-clean. YSI lawyer Tod Aronovitz says the public defender is using abuse allegations in a campaign against privatization that "does a disservice to all Broward County residents," the Sun-Sentinel reports.
But the company has been forced to respond to the accusations. In May, Thompson Academy Administrator Craig Ferguson resigned after allegations that he took boys from the jail shopping, brought them home, and allowed them to shower at his house.
Now, public defenders have a chance to get the court that sentences youth offenders to the facility to take action. Three judges -- Merrilee Ehrlich, Michael Orlando, and Carlos Rodriguez -- are determining whether they will investigate the facility, appoint a court monitor there, or possibly remove its inmates. The judges said these steps would be unprecedented, since interaction with the lockup contractor is typically overseen by Florida's Department of Juvenile Justice.
Weekes gave the new abuse allegations to the three judges as well as prosecutors and YSI lawyers. Meanwhile, he says, kids at the facility who testify about abuse face retribution if nothing is done.
"Staffers are getting to know children's identities, and then these children are identified in the program as snitches and they're subjected to more abuse," he told the judges.