One mother’s fear: a closer look at Florida’s juvenile justice system during the pandemic

Published: Jul. 13, 2020 at 9:57 PM EDT
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) -Outbreaks at Florida’s state prisons have captured headlines during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice appears to be avoiding major spikes in cases, based on the latest data provided by the department.

With 1,700 youth spread out across 72 detention centers in the state, just over 130 staff and 130 youth had the virus, according to that report.

But COVID-19 appears to be affecting a process that is fundamental to the department’s role in reforming troubled youth: the placement into residential treatment programs.

One Leon County mother tells WCTV her son has been waiting over two months to start his program, spending the entire time at the Leon Juvenile Detention Center. Santana Ahrent said she thought her son’s temporary stay at the facility would last just a couple weeks.

“Them just sitting there, it’s just heartbreaking,” she said. “It’s a real heartbreaking situation to not have your child home and not be able to keep him safe during a pandemic like this. It’s constant worry.”

Her 14-year-old was sentenced to a six to nine month rehabilitation program. Ahrent said she’s been told that clock doesn’t start ticking until he’s placed. In her view, a half-year sentence could double.

“He’s going to do more time than what he was sentenced to do,” she said. “It’s unfair for these kids.”

A spokesperson with the Department of Juvenile Justice disputed that view in a statement to WCTV. While unable to talk on a specific case, the DJJ said juvenile offenders aren’t sentenced to “time-based” stays in the system. Instead, they’re released after completing programs tailored to their needs.

Christian Minor, Executive Director of the Florida Juvenile Justice Association, said the pandemic has forced every state agency to make tough decisions. But he argued the DJJ has done a great job balancing priorities.

“The department and its providers have been selective in making sure they don’t put a new intake into a possible environment where they could be exposed,” he said.

“I would tell the mother that there is a plan for her child, that her child is being taken care of. This stay in detention is related to identifying a program that best suits his needs.”

It’s unclear how many other youth have been waiting extended periods for program placement. Minor thought a two-month wait would be an outlier. The DJJ spokesperson said the department is “working to place youth in residential commitment programs as quickly as possible.”

But for a mother worried for her child, the wait for answers can be a tough one.

“[My son] didn’t ask for a pandemic. None of us did,” Ahrent said.

Copyright 2020 WCTV. All rights reserved.

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