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State, critics ready for changes at juvenile facilities

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – After years of controversy, the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice is ending its relationship with Youth Services International, a for-profit firm with state contracts totaling roughly $90 million to run seven juvenile lockups.

Now, critics of the Sarasota-based company, known as YSI, are looking ahead to the next round of contractors to oversee the facilities.

"The Department of Juvenile Justice has to do an incredible job of vetting the applicants," said Rep. Dave Kerner, D-Lake Worth. "And now the applicants know that people are watching. If they produce the same type of work product that (providers) have in the past, we will be all over them with lawsuits and lobbying DJJ to cancel their contracts -- and I think that's very effective."

The department announced this week that it had reached a settlement with YSI that includes ending the company's contracts. That came after criticism of the firm by local communities and a whistleblower lawsuit -- alleging, at least in part, that YSI made false claims about providing services, and even food, to juvenile offenders.

Under terms of the settlement, the firm has agreed to pay $2 million to the state and the lawsuit will be dismissed.

"While Youth Services International believes there is no merit to this lawsuit, it made the decision to settle the case in an effort to put the four-year litigation in the past and avoid the future cost and distraction of a continued legal defense regarding this matter," a company spokesman wrote in an email.

The settlement calls for new contractors to be in place by Aug. 31, and Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Christina Daly has pledged that there will be no interruption of services.

"She assured me that the transition will be smooth," said Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican and member of Senate committees dealing with policy and funding for juvenile justice. "She also assured me that there are competent vendors to take their place and provide appropriate services."

The whistleblower lawsuit contended the company made repeated false claims "in order for the defendants to receive tens of millions of dollars in payments under contracts entered with the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice that the defendants were not entitled to receive … (including) numerous monthly invoices claiming payments for services that had not been performed as required under contracts with the state of Florida."

Plaintiffs alleged such falsifications -- of safety checks, staff training and timesheets, case-management plans and mental health and rehabilitation records -- were a daily occurrence at YSI facilities.

They also alleged the company instructed facility administrators to leave required positions unfilled so as to reduce staffing levels below contract requirements "and would hold back or refuse to provide adequate funds … to purchase required items such as adequate food, clothing, cleaning supplies and other basic necessities."

The plaintiffs were six former YSI employees. One, Antwyon Carter, had some monitoring responsibility for several of the firm's Florida lockups. Four others had worked at the 118-bed, maximum-security Palm Beach County Juvenile Corrections Facility or its predecessor, Thompson Academy. The sixth worked at YSI-run Broward Girls Academy.

In legal documents, YSI acknowledged that the plaintiffs had worked for the company but contended they did not have "sufficient knowledge to form a belief" to support the allegations.

But in Palm Beach County, where the largest of YSI's Florida facilities is located, Kerner, County Commissioner Shelly Vana and other officials had pushed the Department of Juvenile Justice to replace the firm. They also tried to investigate repeated allegations of abuse.

Daly met with Palm Beach County commissioners and conducted dozens of site visits. But Gordon Weekes, Broward County's chief assistant public defender, said the department should have acted long before.

Weekes said he held the department accountable for teens who needed help turning their lives around but instead were thrust into what he has called a "Lord of the Flies" environment.

"It fell on deaf ears when these complaints were coming from children," he said. "But when former employees came forward and also talked about what they had experienced … and it was similar to the complaints from the children, you could not walk away from it and conclude that everyone was making this stuff up."

However, former Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Wansley Walters, who left the post in 2014, said critics don't appreciate how much was involved in the YSI settlement.

"I applaud everything Secretary Daly is doing," Walters said. "And for those flame-throwers -- particularly those in the legal profession -- they ought to know that no one can operate outside of legal processes, and these things take time."

In recent legislative sessions, lawmakers have tried to give the department more leverage in contracts. In 2014, Bradley and Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, successfully pushed to include contractors' histories in other states among the criteria by which DJJ awards its contracts.

Another new requirement, Soto said, is for quarterly reporting "of all adverse incidences, regardless of fault. … I think those are two key reforms. Certainly, we'd be open to others."

Daly also noted that lawmakers allocated $1.9 million to improve the ratio of facility staffers to youth offenders. She told The News Service of Florida the additional funding would lead to a ratio of 1 staff member to eight juveniles during waking hours, down from the current ratio of 1-to-10. The ratio is 1-to-12 during sleep hours.