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Charlotte County youth facility fights DJJ closure

By on June 24, 2012

A Charlotte County youth facility is escalating its battle with the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, which doesn’t plan to renew its contract after 33 years. Even as DJJ moves to slash residential beds and focus more dollars on community-based day treatment, AMIKids Crossroads, a 35-bed rehab and counseling center, is rallying supporters in hopes of keeping its doors open, reports Margie Menzel of the News Service of Florida.

Those backers include Congressman Tom Rooney and state Reps. Paige Kreegel and Ken Roberson, all Republicans who represent the area, along with local elected officials and civic groups. They’re holding a “Support the Effort to Save AMIKids Crossroads” town hall meeting Tuesday at the Charlotte Harbor Event Center, and have invited Gov. Rick Scott, who has yet to respond.

“This is important to the county on a lot of levels,” said Kreegel. “It’s cost-effective. It’s good for the kids. It’s jobs for our community.”

DJJ Secretary Wansley Walters is looking at many of the same factors – outcomes, jobs and cost savings – but coming to a different conclusion.

“We are making market-driven decisions to provide the services these children need,” she said.

Walters pointed to DJJ data showing that fewer youth are moving into the deeper and more expensive end of the juvenile justice system – that is, into residential programs. Referrals to those programs have declined 37 percent over the past five years, she said.

So on June 30, the agency’s contracts with the West Florida Wilderness Institute, which is run by AMIKids in Holmes County, and Mandala, a facility in Pasco County, will expire and the programs will close. There are no youths remaining in either.

The contract for AMIKids Crossroads has been extended to Aug. 31 to permit its current participants to complete the program.

Kreegel, who is running for Congressman Connie Mack’s seat, already has objected to what he sees as a violation of legislative intent. He and Roberson wrote Scott last month, saying that proviso language in the state budget “stipulates that [DJJ] shall first make residential bed reductions in both secure and non-secure beds that are operated by the Department before reducing privately operated non-secure or secure residential beds.”

Kreegel told the News Service of Florida the proviso language is meant to “shut down more expensive and less successful state-run facilities.”

Walters responded that DJJ is in the process of reviewing all programs and has already identified state beds to be reduced. She said the number of state residential commitments per month decreased from 654 in April 2009 to 285 in April 2012.

Despite the Scott Administration’s belt-tightening moves, Kreegel said he believes AMIKids Crossroads has a chance to survive.

“I think those 60 days gave us a breather,” he said of the contract extension. “The squeaky wheel gets the grease…Obviously, we’re having some success or we wouldn’t have gotten the 60 days.”

Walters, after 17 months as secretary, said she is working to change DJJ’s relationships with providers.

“For a long time, the providers had more credibility with the Legislature than this department did,” she said. “So in some cases, the providers began dictating what was needed instead of the department…And to me, as secretary at this point, what we have is a system that is not being driven by the needs of these children or the value to the taxpayer.”

She said the Crossroads supporters were admirable but didn’t have all the information – including, she said, that the state is paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for empty beds.

Last month, Crossroads board member Lee Swift told WZVN-TV that “it was just easy to attack the programs up for renewal,” the station reported. “That way they don’t have to eliminate state beds and state employees.”

DJJ spokeswoman Samadhi Jones said the agency lost 1,183 positions in 2011-12, including 551 residential positions.

Joe Clark, executive director of the Eckerd Family Foundation, said it’s only to be expected that providers would resist the change in DJJ’s strategy. He said Scott’s criminal justice transition team, on which Walters served, had agreed to stress more cost-effective youth outcomes.

“To me, it means, ‘Are we effectively delivering services to kids that come into the system?’” Clark said. “When you do that, you will necessarily get people upset, because it will involve cutting back programs.”

And sometimes that means cutting back programs that are doing a good job but are too expensive, he said.

“Sometimes you get folks from the community who are concerned because perhaps that results in a loss of employment – or people who say, ‘This is a real loss,” Clark said.

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