Kathleen Chapman and colleague William Harnett of The Palm Beach Post were runners-up for a 2005 Casey Medal for their investigation of staffing problems in Florida's privately run juvenile justice facilities. Among their findings: at least 200 workers had been fired from previous juvenile justice jobs for everything from violence against teens to allegations of sexual misconduct. More than 100 employees were found to have felony arrest records. This story was orginally published in July 2005.
I started investigating Florida's juvenile justice system in 2003 while working on daily news stories about the state's first maximum-security facility for young female offenders. The Florida Institute for Girls struggled with a series of problems, in part because supervisors had failed to weed out violent and abusive employees – one of whom was criminally charged for having sex with two teens in the staff bathroom, and another who was arrested for assaulting an inmate who said he groped her. Four girls' arms were broken during violent restraints.
The residential program in Palm Beach County, like most in Florida, was run by a private company. But because that company was serving a state function with taxpayer money, its records were public under state law. After looking through about a dozen personnel files, I noticed that three of the workers involved in the worst incidents had previously lost their jobs at a similar program for young offenders a few miles away.
The program's former director said the majority of her employees were good people who wanted to help the teens, but admitted her frustration finding workers. State leaders expected the program to become a national model for treating and rehabilitating the most violent young female offenders, but the company's starting wage was "absurd," she said -- just $7 or $8 an hour. She was scrambling just to keep the jobs filled, and hiring just about anyone who passed a criminal background check.
As a result, many of the workers were in their late teens or early 20s, still immature and poorly trained to deal with girls who hurled chairs, threatened suicide, flirted with male workers and attacked the staff. The job would have been tough for anyone, and the average youth care worker lasted less than a year on the job.
After other sources confirmed that the problems were widespread, The Post decided to launch a statewide investigation of juvenile justice hiring practices. In a state-run system, this would have been pretty simple. I could have just requested a database of all current and former employees from the state Department of Juvenile Justice, then sorted by employee name to find any hired-fired-and rehired workers.
The employees of Florida's 26 short-term detention centers work for the state and were listed in a central database. But Florida's system includes about 150 longer-term programs that range from wilderness camps to maximum-security facilities, nearly all run by more than 40 different private contractors. Some are small nonprofits, others are for-profit corporations based in other states.
I knew I would need the help of William M. Hartnett, one of The Post's computer-assisted reporting specialists. We filed the first of more than 100 public records requests with the state and all of its contractors in October 2003. To head off charges for copies or staff research time, we started by asking contractors to e-mail us basic information. We figured that once we got the employee names, we could look for matches. If we found someone who had worked at more than one place, we would ask the first employer to research whether the employee left on good terms or was fired. Once we knew who was fired, we could request their disciplinary histories or letters of termination.
We knew that getting private companies to turn over their personnel records would not be easy, but the resistance was even worse than we expected. Many of the companies were completely unaware of their obligations to obey Florida's open records laws, even though their contracts require them to do so. We ran up against unequivocal rejection letters from attorneys, and evasive company officials who refused to return phone calls entirely. One executive assistant repeatedly refused to give the name of a person I could contact.
To thwart the thwarters, we found every statute, court ruling and Attorney General opinion relevant to obtaining records from publicly funded private organizations. We presented the most helpful companies as examples, and sent company attorneys case law and contract language that required them to comply. Many of the contractors that initially refused ultimately agreed to cooperate.
For those that needed more convincing, we turned to the public records specialist in the office of Florida's Attorney General. Part of her job is to mediate records disputes between the public and government. Her help was invaluable — and free. It was probably more effective to turn to a neutral records expert in state government where we could, rather than using an intimidating private attorney.
By the summer of 2004, seven months after we sent our first records requests, we had information from all but one company. The chairman of one of the state's largest and most powerful law firms represented the company, so we were finally forced to turn to The Post's lawyer. We filed suit and a judge ordered the release of the records soon after. In April 2005, 18 months after our first records requests, the judge also ordered the company to reimburse our legal expenses of $22,415.04.
With information on more than 17,000 current and former juvenile justice workers finally in hand, we built a database that allowed us to track those that had been fired from one center only to be rehired elsewhere. The investigation revealed that teen offenders were repeatedly and unnecessarily endangered by the failure of the state and its private contractors to weed out hundreds of these problem workers.
The difficulty of our records fight also highlighted a flaw in the privately managed juvenile justice system: its private business mindset. The same secretive personnel policies and closed-door attitudes that The Post faced during its investigation were among the primary reasons why Florida's juvenile centers had repeatedly recycled hundreds of violent and incompetent workers. Many companies had been advised never to share the history of even their worst workers, fearing they could be sued, and managers trying to check the backgrounds of prospective hires often accepted neutral references. Because the managers mostly came from the private sector, they didn't know they could use state open records laws to check the workers' backgrounds, just as government supervisors have long done with teachers and police officers.
After our report, the state's Department of Juvenile Justice created its first system-wide employee database of public and private workers, similar to the one that we built. Our efforts also opened the eyes of company managers to the power of open records laws, and many are now using them to stop the abuses we described.
Raises for workers in Florida's private juvenile justice programs have been slower in coming. An $11 million proposal to boost the average youth worker salary from just over $17,000 to about $20,000 a year proposed by key Republican leaders and supported by Gov. Jeb Bush, fell apart in the last days of this year's legislative session. In part, lawmakers couldn't agree whether they should tell private companies how to spend contracts they were awarded by the state.
Legislators did agree to close down the Florida Institute for Girls, which they said was a failed experiment. The last girls will be transferred out of the program this fall (2005).