In the early 1980s, PD-11 filed a class action lawsuit against then Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS) and Dade County Public Schools (DCPS) for overcrowding and lack of educational services at the Juvenile Detention Center. DCPS agreed to create a school in the detention center, and the complaint was voluntarily dismissed. HRS also expanded the size of the detention center to create more beds and services.
In 1982, PD-11 applied for and received a federal grant to create the Right to Treatment Unit in the Juvenile Division. This unit consisted of social workers whose primary functions were to evaluate the developmental and mental health needs of juvenile clients and to ensure adequate and proper treatment. Services continued, funded from PD-11 funds when the grant expired.
In 1990, in M.E. v. Chiles, Case No. 90-1008-CIV-MOORE, a class action suit filed in federal district court, PD-11 worked closely with Legal Services of Greater Miami to identify delinquent children committed to state custody whose mental health needs were not being met.
In 1991, PD-11 worked to ensure Dade County Public Schools complied with the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act when dealing with the special educational needs of detained and committed children. This involved negotiations with the Dade County Public School’s attorney office and civil rights compliance office.
In 1998, PD-11 applied for and received federal funds to create the Juvenile Alternative Sentencing Project. In this project, social workers and attorneys specialized in advocating for juvenile sanctions for juvenile clients transferred into the adult system. This project has continued, funded by PD-11 after the federal funding expired.
Indiscriminate shackling of children in courts was an all too common practice in Florida and nationwide. In many Florida counties, shackling had been going on since the 1980’s. In Miami, it started in the early 1990’s. Children were treated as enemy combatants in court, dressed in bright orange or brown jumpsuits, wearing metal handcuffs, a belly chain connected to the handcuffs, and metal leg shackles. Unlike jailed adult defendants, securely detained children were chained and shackled in the courtroom regardless of age, size, gender or alleged offense, without a finding of dangerousness or risk of flight. Pregnant girls and children with epilepsy had been shackled, all in the name of courtroom security.
Shackling was not limited to delinquency cases. Even the detained “cross-over” children (those with a delinquency offense who also had a dependency case because a parent abused, neglected or abandoned the child) were brought to dependency court hearings in chains and shackles to face the parent who was accused of abusing, neglecting or abandoning the child.
Florida’s blanket shackling practice was not authorized by statute, administrative or court rule, or Department of Juvenile Justice regulations. Previous challenges to indiscriminate shackling in Florida had failed. Despite that, we formulated a broad-based legal challenge. With help from the National Juvenile Defender Center and expertise from the medical, psychological, therapeutic jurisprudence, and international law fields, we filed hundreds of motions to unchain the children. We notified the media and worked with editorial boards. We also filed legislation, and secured support from the faith community, The Florida Bar, the Miami-Dade County Commission, and two statewide child advocacy organizations–Florida’s Children First and The Children’s Campaign.
In Sept. 2006, a courageous juvenile court judge, William Johnson, made the first individualized findings and children began to appear before him unchained, unshackled. Soon after, the other three juvenile judges followed suit. Our success instigated other defender offices in Florida and other states to join the cause. We supported and guided their efforts.
The move to end indiscriminate shackling initiated by us gained support outside the courtroom. The Florida Bar Board of Governor’s unanimously supported the Legal Needs of Children Committee’s effort to eliminate indiscriminate shackling. Florida’s Juvenile Rules Committee proposed a rule that would strictly limit the use of restraints in juvenile court. Surprisingly, despite gaining wide support, in almost all Florida juvenile courtrooms, other than in Miami-Dade County, children still appeared in chains.
Statewide shackling reform was finally achieved when the Florida Supreme Court adopted the proposed court rule effective Jan. 1, 2010. Under the new rule shackling would be allowed only if the judge finds it necessary to prevent physical harm to the child or others; the child has a history of disruptive behavior; there is “founded belief” the child is a flight risk; and there are no less restrictive alternatives, such as the presence of law-enforcement officers.
In Miami-Dade County, 10 years after the first child was unshackled, more than 30,000 detained children have appeared in court, and few have been determined to be a flight or safety risk to justify shackling. We have not had courtroom escapes or injuries. Despite seeing a high number of detained children in court each day, our judges dispense justice, one child at a time, without additional courtroom personnel.