JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A Jacksonville teenager in the foster system was sexually assaulted in February as he was walking away from his group home in the Panama Park neighborhood on Jacksonville's Northside, authorities said.
The case was highlighted in a viral Facebook video in which the 15-year-old boy describes the attack, his experience in the foster care system and living at Panama Youth Services group home, The Florida Times-Union reports.
News4Jax obtained an arrest report from the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office showing Robert Stephens III was charged in a Feb. 24 kidnapping and sexual assault of a teenage boy.
According to the report, the teen told detectives he was walking near the railroad tracks at 63rd and Main streets about 5 a.m. when an unknown man, later identified as Stephens, took him to nearby Tallulah Park, saying he would shoot him if he resisted, and that's where the teen was sexually assaulted.
The report does not say the victim was a foster child living at Panama Youth Services. But the report reveals the teen told detectives that before the main approached him, he was walking from 402 E. 63rd St., which is the address listed for Panama Youth Services.
Willie Green, chief executive officer of Panama Youth Services, confirmed Tuesday to News4Jax that the teen assaulted was a resident of the group home at the time. Green said the teen's claims in the Facebook video caught him off-guard and said he couldn't talk about specifics of the case.
According to the Times-Union, the teen said he was out of the group home the night of Feb. 24 "because he got home late from work and wasn’t allowed inside until the staff shift change at midnight."
Green said the 12- to 17-year-old boys who stay at the group home have rules, including curfews. But as a group home, Green said, all it can do under state guidelines is to report if a child a breaks those rules.
"We do have a duty to report. There are people to report to," Green said. "Panama Youth Services, we actually do that as best we can -- whether it’s by email, by phone, by word-of-mouth -- we do make sure we follow up with what the state guidelines are and we do our best."
Green added that what happened is unfortunate, but the home has no responsibility for it happening.
A spokesman for the Florida Department of Children and Families told News4Jax Tuesday the agency is aware of the allegations made by the teen on Facebook, and an investigation has been completed. The spokesman said the report was not releasable because of confidentiality, but assured in a statement that DCF "would not tolerate a group home throwing or locking children out. If we receive evidence that this happened, then we would investigate the group home."
The statement goes on to say:
We do everything in our power to ensure that children are in safe group homes that meet their needs. If a group home determines that they cannot provide services to a child, they may determine that it is in the best interest of the child to be at a different group home. Ultimately, placement decisions are made by DCF Child Protective Investigators in the early stages of a case. After that time, placement decisions are made by community-based care agencies that are contracted to handle foster care and adoptive services in their local areas. Different children may have different needs, and placement decisions are based on the individual needs of that child. Every child is assessed by a team of professionals. This sometimes includes doctors and psychiatrists, based on the individual child’s needs. A child or teenager is not moved to a different home until another placement is found. A child or teenager is never kicked out onto the street.
"We have high expectations and high standards for the group homes, and we hold them accountable for their performance. We expect that they will provide proper supervision of children, as well as ensuring that they may be able to have normal childhood experiences. We expect that group homes will provide a positive, stable and nurturing environment for children living in their homes. Most of the children at group homes are not involved with the Department of Juvenile Justice."
On Tuesday at the Duval County Courthouse, there was a foster court hearing for the teen, who News4Jax has chosen not to name because he's a minor and the victim of an alleged sex crime. During the hearing, nearly a dozen people discussed the future of the 15-year-old and where would be the best place for him to live.
Tuesday's hearing, which will resume July 26, made it clear the teen needs the proper living environment and needs to continue behavioral health therapy.
Stephens, 39, was arrested in March on charges of sexual battery and kidnapping after investigators said his DNA was found on the teen.
He was also in court Tuesday. Both sides are awaiting whether DNA test results can be used as evidence.
Stephens, who's being held in the Duval County jail without bond, will be back in court Aug. 21.