Protecting Children's Rights

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.

Approximately 100 children per month were not receiving detention hearings within 24 hours of their being taken into custody, contrary to Florida law. Some children were held by the arresting agency for 24 hours before they were even taken to the Juvenile Assessment Center for processing. PD-11 filed motions daily for several weeks requesting that these children be brought before the courts for an immediate hearing or immediately released. After PD-11 filed eight emergency writs, the appellate court, in D.M. v. Dobuler, 947 So. 2d 504 (Fla. 3d DCA 2006), ruled that all children must receive a detention hearing within 24 hours. Now, all arrested children are afforded prompt detention hearings.

We files numerous writs each year to ensure that judges do not detain children in violation of statutory requirements. Since 2000, the appellate court has granted more than thirty writs of habeas corpus filed by our attorneys. These writs challenged court orders to have children detained in secure detention pending trial, probation violation hearings and placement into a commitment program. In each case, the appellate court ordered the child’s release from secure detention as the statutory detention requirements were not satisfied.

Omar Paisley was a 17-year old boy with one arrest in his life – due to a fight with another boy. In exchange for not having his case sent to adult court, Omar pled guilty in juvenile court. Omar was at the Juvenile Detention Center when he died an inexcusable death of a ruptured appendix after weeping and begging for medical attention for three days. He died June 9, 2003, in a plastic chair, outside his room, in front of 20 other children who witnessed the pain and the callous lack of treatment, before emergency medical treatment was called.

The Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) and local police were ready to close out Omar’s death without any further action. Omar had been our client. Immediately following his death, we interviewed each eyewitness, preserving their accounts before they were transferred. This was accomplished despite DJJ’s efforts to deny normal attorney access to information. Ultimately, these accounts went to the Grand Jury, the State Attorney’s Office and the lawyer for the family of Omar Paisley. We inspected the log book entries for the critical three days prior to Omar’s death, preserving the log information for evidence. We demanded grief counseling for all the child witnesses. Public Defender Bennett Brummer personally went to the facility and interviewed children. He met with the highest officials of DJJ, demanding unrestricted attorney access, repaired phone lines and medical accountability.

Brummer was the first public official to call for a grand jury investigation. We submitted dozens of questions concerning the confinement conditions of the Juvenile Detention Center to the grand jury which issued a scathing report, saying: “We are appalled at the utter lack of humanity demonstrated by many of the detention workers charged with the safety and care of our youth.” We cooperated with the state attorney’s investigation into criminal neglect, which led to the indictment of two nurses. Fourteen detention workers were fired, the secretary and deputy secretary took leave of the department, and the state awarded damages to the family of Omar Paisley. Omar Paisley’s death led to a remarkable overhaul of the department and positive detention reforms.

In 1997, the Pahokee Facility, originally designed as a 350-bed prison, was transferred from the Department of Corrections to the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). The prison was re-labeled a juvenile delinquency moderate-risk program, placing it on the same level as a halfway house. Of the 350 children housed in Pahokee, 40 were from Miami-Dade. PD-11 immediately began receiving alarming complaints from our clients housed at Pahokee. PD-11 attorneys made several trips to the facility to investigate and collect evidence of neglect, verbal and physical abuse, bug-ridden food, isolated despairing children with almost no home contact, and an overall prison atmosphere. PD-11 filed motions in the trial court claiming that Pahokee was not a moderate-risk program and that moderate-risk children ought to be removed. The judge agreed with us, calling the facility “a prison in all but name.” DJJ appealed, claiming only DJJ could define what is a moderate-risk program. DJJ ultimately won the legal battle, State Department of Juvenile Justice v. E.R., 724 So. 2d 129 (Fla. 3d DCA 1998), but the Pahokee Facility abuses were exposed. DJJ canceled its contract with the Pahokee vendor and ceased sending moderate-risk children to the facility. The facility is now called the Sago Palm Youth Development Center and is designated as a high-risk program.

Some of the biggest challenges facing us today arise from recent amendments to Florida’s “Sexual Offender” law. Effective July 1, 2007, children 14 years of age and older who are adjudicated delinquent for committing sexual battery and certain “lewd or lascivious” acts against other children are subject to a lifetime “sexual offender” registration requirement. Their photographs and personal information will be disseminated to various agencies and individuals throughout the state, and will be posted on the Florida Department of Law Enforcement website for world-wide viewing. This registration requirement applies even to first-time offenders.

Experts agree that the new law will impact low-risk teenagers who were never headed toward becoming adult sex offenders. The terrible stigma of the “Sexual Offender” registration requirement can foster peer and community rejection, isolation, and increased anger, and might make it difficult for these children to stay in the mainstream of society.

We believe that children charged with sex offenses should be afforded the same due process protections that adult sex offenders are given. We will be litigating the issue of whether the constitution requires jury trials for children charged with sex offenses as well as other issues that arise during the law’s implementation.