Kids Claim Abuse and Violence at Juvenile Lockup Thompson Academy | Feature | South Florida | Broward Palm Beach New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Broward-Palm Beach, Florida


Kids Claim Abuse and Violence at Juvenile Lockup Thompson Academy

Reggie got the call on New Year's Day, when most of the world was still nursing its hangover.

"Your son got into an altercation," said a staffer at the Thompson Academy juvenile detention center in Pembroke Pines. "We think we're going to have to take him to the hospital."

Heart pounding, Reggie — whose full name New Times is withholding to protect her privacy — listened to a strange story. The staffers said her 17-year-old son, Davie, had been outside playing football. He started arguing with some other kids. Suddenly an older boy slugged him in the face.

He hit his head on a metal pole and fell to the ground, unconscious. As he lay helpless in the dirt, Reggie was later told that other teenagers joined in to kick and beat him. The guards, although trained to supervise and protect the community's most troubled kids, insisted that "it all happened so fast that they couldn't prevent it."

Reggie rushed to Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood. Davie's face was cartoonishly swollen and bruised, one purplish eye shut. He was drooling and in terrible pain. The doctors whisked him off to surgery, where they inserted five metal plates into his broken face — including one at his temple that gave his eyelid a permanent droop. Twelve screws laced his broken jaw back together.

For six days, Reggie stayed at his hospital bedside. He couldn't eat, talk, or open his mouth. "My son almost died," she says.

Thompson Academy was already facing a federal class-action lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) on behalf of inmates who claimed they'd been abused. Yet authorities continued to insist that nothing was wrong. Because juvenile delinquents were making the claims, it was hard to know whom to believe.

Reggie has long, dark-brown hair and creamy skin covered with copious tattoos — Davie's name on one ankle, "Bitch Killa" on the other. Her eyebrows are permanently arched. A hard anger creeps easily into her voice, tempered by flashes of sweetness when she calls her daughter "mami."

She's just 33, but bitterness has aged her. Her life has taken a series of unforgiving turns.

She got pregnant with Davie when she was 15, raising him on her own because his dad was in prison. By the time Davie was 3, Reggie had given birth to another baby, a girl.

In 1998, Reggie was arrested for armed robbery and burglary with assault and battery. She was sentenced to eight and a half years in prison and watched Davie's childhood unfold from behind the bars of the Homestead Correctional Institution. His grandparents took care of him and his younger sister. Reggie snapped photos when the kids came to visit her in the slammer, their arms wrapped around her neck, her daughter smiling at the camera, Davie offering a wary stare.

Released in 2007, Reggie was determined to find a better path. She rented a house in Homestead and started taking classes to become a medical assistant. She got to know her now-teenaged son, who loved to play baseball and wanted to join the Army. But his difficult childhood took a toll. He was diagnosed as emotionally handicapped and was enrolled in special-ed classes. He inherited his parents' flair for danger.

First he got arrested for pulling the door handles on strangers' cars, setting off their alarms. Then he was caught trying to shoplift a USB cord from Kmart, Reggie says (juvenile court records are not public). He landed in the Miami-Dade Regional Juvenile Detention Center last March.

Now it was a judge's responsibility to figure out what to do with him. In most juvenile cases, a group of people including Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) officials, the parents, and a representative of the child get together before sentencing to recommend which level of punishment the child should receive. The judge makes a final ruling, and then DJJ officials decide which facility is best, says Gordon Weekes Jr., chief assistant public defender for Broward.

The lowest level of punishment is a day school, where kids live at home but attend special classes and activities daily. Next there are "moderate-risk" programs, which can include wilderness camps or residential lockups like Thompson. These programs are not nearly as restrictive as high-security lockups, which are more akin to adult prisons, where the worst offenders are sent.

Davie was sentenced to a moderate-risk program. DJJ chose Thompson Academy. On a state website, Thompson is described as a nonsecure, "therapeutic" program. Kids attend school on-site, live in dorm rooms, receive treatment for substance abuse, and have time to play sports outside. Reggie believed it would be a good choice because it was a residential facility close to home. It would give her son the discipline and counseling he needed.

"I was ecstatic," she says. "I thought this was like the best thing they could do for my son. And look what happened."

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Lisa Rab
Contact: Lisa Rab

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