Judges Must Know Where Juveniles Are Going

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Irene Sullivan, a former Florida juvenile judge and author of "Raised by the Courts," shares her thoughts on the closure of the infamous North Florida Youth Development Center, formerly known as the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys.

It’s closed.

It’s shut down.

It’s over ... for the 63 remaining boys locked up at Dozier, the notorious reform school in Florida’s panhandle, and perhaps for the hundreds of survivors who told of being beaten, raped and forced into solitary confinement more than 50 years ago in a cinder-block building known as the “White House.”

Florida’s newly appointed Secretary of Juvenile Justice, Wansley Walters, announced last month that Dozier will cease operations on June 30 as part of an overall plan to save $41 million in state funds by reducing and consolidating Florida’s juvenile residential population. The Dozier program alone cost about $14.3 million a year to run. Three detention centers and another state-run residential facility were also closed as part of the cost reduction.

Child advocates cheered. Ben Montgomery and Waveney Ann Moore, the St. Petersburg Times reporters who wrote the series called “For Their Own Good,” about the trauma suffered by the “White House boys,” quoted some of those child advocates in reporting the closures:

Roy Miller, president of the Children’s Campaign Inc. in Tallahassee: “Thank God that the state’s budget crisis led to one good outcome.”

David Utter, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Florida Youth Initiative: “It’s almost like it’s closing a very dark and troubled chapter in Florida’s juvenile justice history.”

Jack Levine, longtime child advocate who exposed the horrors of Dozier 30 years ago:  “There will be some who interpret this end of the era of Dozier as strictly a budgetary decision. I think it’s a factor, but I think the over-arching reality is we have in Secretary Walters a deeply dedicated reformer who knows that the best use of our dollars is an investment in quality and accountability.”

Jack Levine hit the nail on the head with “best use of our dollars.”  Just do the math. A residential program serving just 63 boys at a cost of $14.3 million equates to over $240,000 per year per boy! Just imagine the fine college preparatory education, job training, mental health and substance abuse treatment, recreational facilities and comfortable living quarters you ought to be able provide for a teenage boy for just a quarter of that astronomical sum of money.

Dozier’s closing reminded me of my visit five years ago to Umatilla, a residential program for high-risk girls located in central Florida and run by a private, for-profit corporation. The filth, violence and degradation I witnessed during my first visit to Umatilla reduced me to tears. Gangs of girls roamed the halls. There were no doors on the toilets or shower curtains. Male guards were told to “look the other way.” Abuse calls were so numerous that a child protective investigator had an office on site.

As a result of my visit, our chief juvenile judge, Marion Fleming, issued an order prohibiting any of our girls from going to Umatilla. Shortly thereafter, without any involvement on my part, the state cancelled the contract and closed Umatilla.

What role should juvenile judges play in shutting down shameful, costly, ineffective facilities, and of advocating for reform? A major role, I say. After all, juvenile judges sign the orders that commit the kids. And, juvenile judges have the authority to visit any residential program any day, unannounced.

Perhaps it’s easier to close a new, privately run program like Umatilla than a state-run institution like Dozier, which employed 186 employees. However, as New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo recently declared in response to similar closures: “We don’t lock up kids to provide jobs for adults.”

I’m betting that juvenile judges would agree with Gov. Cuomo.