Judd: Child neglect, lack of 'meaningful transparency' common at Avon Park youth facility

Crimes went unreported at Highlands Youth Academy, according to an investigation.

AVON PARK, Fla. - Child neglect, unreported crimes and a lack of "meaningful transparency" were common at a youth facility being overseen by the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, according to an investigation by the Polk County Sheriff's Office that resulted in the arrests of three former employees on Friday.

"The Highlands Youth Academy has been, and likely still is, a mess," Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said in a statement. "Since the riot in 2013, warning bells have been ringing loud and clear. About the only thing I can tell that the Department of Juvenile Justice has done about it has been to turn the alarm off and circle the wagons."

Norma Wynn, 56, of Sebring, a former facility administrator, is facing charges for:

  • Three counts of destroy/tamper with evidence
  • Two counts of failure to report child abuse/neglect
  • Three counts of use of public record to commit a felony
  • One count of tampering in felony proceeding
  • Two counts of wilful neglect of juvenile offender
  • One count of false information to law enforcement

Jose Sanchez, 63, of Sebring, a former assistant administrator, is facing charges for:

  • Two counts of destroy/tamper with evidence
  • Two counts of failure to report child abuse/neglect
  • Two counts of use of public record to commit a felony
  • Two counts of wilful neglect of juvenile offender

Johnny Heart, 40, of Okaloosa County, a former assistant administrator, is facing charges for:

  • One count of destroy/tamper with evidence
  • One count of child abuse
  • Two counts of use of public record to commit a felony
  • Two counts of wilful neglect of juvenile offender

The charges stem from ongoing incidents at the facility and a lack of cooperation with law enforcement that Judd described as "an ongoing pernicious conspiracy of silence and corruption."

Academy should "cease to exist"

Investigators began looking into the facility following an August 2013 riot where 61 residents were charged with various offenses.

In Dec. 2014, an academy employee told deputies he was a victim of a battery. When asked why he traveled nearly 20 miles to a sheriff's office substation to report it, the man said employees were not permitted to report being a victim of a crime while at work, the sheriff's office said.

When deputies contacted Wynn, then the facility administrator, she confirmed the rule, saying it was the policy of the Department of Juvenile Justice, the sheriff's office said.

In March 2015, Wynn was advised by detectives that academy procedures for notifying law enforcement must be compliant with state law. Again, she said the rule was set by DJJ, the sheriff's office said.

Three months later, deputies responded to the academy for a battery of a staff member by a resident.

"It should be noted that this victim has a cardiac pacemaker implanted in their chest," the sheriff's office said. "This victim was forced to clock out of work, and walk approximately a quarter mile to a guard shack to use a phone to contact the sheriff's office."

A subsequent and unrelated investigation uncovered "numerous" escapes by residents that were not reported to the sheriff's office, the agency said.

In June 2015, a grand jury returned a presentment regarding the facility's conditions, including:

  • "The Highlands Youth Academy is a failure of the DJJ Mission and is symptomatic of a much larger problem in our state." 
  • "The existence of (HYA) in its current state is a disgrace." 
  • "(HYA) should cease to exist." 
  • "DJJ should require that its contractors put in place strong policies requiring that law enforcement be immediately contacted to investigate felony crimes taking place in their facilities."

Law enforcement calls to the facility were common prior to the grand jury presentment, but afterwards, the Polk County Sheriff's Office received one call between November 2015 and August 2016, the agency said.

By November 2015, deputies were receiving tips regarding sexual activity between staff and residents and residents assaulting staff, both of which were not being reported, the sheriff's office said.

"No meaningful transparency"

Following a February 2016 "large scale disturbance" at the academy, investigators were told by Wynn that there were either no cameras in the area of the disturbance or they weren't working at the time.

Authorities later learned from other staffers that the cameras were working.

By the time they found out, footage of the riot was written over, the sheriff's office said.

Additional incidents were discovered following the riot, including a pornographic DVD found inside the academy, a worker having sexual contact with residents, and a resident who was slammed to the ground and elbowed in the neck and back by workers - none of which were reported to state officials.

The Florida Department of Children and Families became involved in several investigations at the facility in September 2016, which resulted in the suspensions of Wynn and Hart; Sanchez later retired.

Judd, the Polk County sheriff, accused state juvenile officials of covering up for G4S Youth Services, which operated the facility during the alleged crimes.

"Our investigation shows that G4S and their staff routinely covered up, or tried to cover up, fights, uses of force, contraband problems, children 'huffing' gas, escapes, and even reports of staff having sex with children," Judd said. "There's no meaningful transparency in the program. If G4S told the truth about what was happening at the facility, they would be in danger of losing their contract. So they didn't. My gut tells me that the issues at the G4S Highlands Youth Academy are happening statewide. If they are, we have a very, very serious problem."

G4S sold its U.S.-based youth services, including the Highlands Youth Academy, to BHSB Holdings for $56.5 million in April.

The company, which changed its name to TrueCore Behavioral Solutions in June, said they will not issue a statement until Monday.

The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice said they've invested $2 million in facility improvements since the 2015 jury presentment, in addition to installing more cameras and increasing staff.

"Any assertion that DJJ has not worked to improve this facilities’ operations and services is false," the department said in the statement. "We are 100% committed to youth safety and will hold anyone accountable who is not. We have not, do not, and will not tolerate staff who endanger the safety and well-being of youth placed in our care."

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