House bill protects juveniles in state custody

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - A bill that would protect juvenile detainees in facilities run by the Department of Juvenile Justice, a response to the death of a kid in a Palm Beach County lockup, is moving in the House.

The measure (HB 353), which was approved earlier this week in the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee came out of a recommendation in a Palm Beach County Grand Jury report issued last year on the death of Eric Perez.

Perez died of a cerebral hemorrhage in July 2011. The grand jury found that supervisors, guards and a nurse at the Palm Beach Regional Detention Center ignored signs that he'd been ill for more than six hours after he sustained two blows to the head during "horseplay" with guards. Witnesses said the guards were searching Perez and others for unauthorized snacks.

A subsequent DJJ inspector general's report found that agency employees failed to call for help because they thought Perez was faking his illness. One witness described hearing a supervisor say he wouldn't transport Perez to Columbia Hospital to avoid filling out an incident report.

But while the grand jury report was scathing, it also concluded that criminal charges couldn't be filed against the guards because there was no basis for doing so in state law.

The bill, therefore, expands the definition of child abuse to include youths in DJJ detention facilities. While the measure, sponsored by Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, was approved unanimously by the House committee on Tuesday, it still doesn't have a Senate companion.

Harrell said the measure also protects corrections officers and other staff.

"It's a balancing act of protecting the youth who are in the facilities but also protecting and making sure that the corrections officers have the ability to do what they need to do," Harrell said. "And yes, there are some whacked-out kids there … but also we want to make sure that we are not abusing those youth who are in our care and custody, and making sure we can put them on the right track."

The bill goes next to the House Judiciary Committee.

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