Teen Prostitution and Drugs Are Rampant at South Florida Group Homes
There were raised voices and broken glass and the high-voltage emotions that pinball between a wild teen and her worried mom. In their Davie home, Bonnie had installed new locks on the windows to keep her 16-year-old daughter, Cathy, from sneaking out again. The fight ended with Cathy waving around a kitchen knife. She left in handcuffs.
Hours later at the Broward County Courthouse, Cathy — a skin-and-bones blonde with the kind of sand-smooth face you see on girls in fashion magazines — was arraigned on a charge of assault with a deadly weapon. Bonnie, a 50-year-old marketing professional, sat watching her daughter, the legal jargon boxing her ears like white noise. (New Times is not publishing their real names.)
The judge reviewed the teen's file, then asked Bonnie if she wanted to take her daughter home.
It wasn't an easy choice.
Cathy was the middle child of Bonnie's three daughters. The oldest, then 17, had set the example: sneaking out, using drugs, running with older, rougher guys. Cathy was careening along the same wayward trajectory.
Her parents couldn't pinpoint why. Bonnie had walked her kids to school every day when they were young. A loving nanny had helped raise the girls for 11 years. Bonnie and her husband, Ed, a manager at a scrap-metal company, divorced in 2001 — but amicably, and both were active in raising the girls.
Still, Cathy, like her older sister, was wild. Once, when she was 13 and drinking with a group of older boys, the incident ended in a sexual assault. She'd since been held back twice. Now still technically an eighth-grader at the Hallandale Adult Learning Center, she was sneaking out "four out of seven nights a week," Bonnie says. The mother was worried her youngest daughter would copy Cathy's antics.
Bonnie told the judge no.
"This is sad to say about your own kid," Bonnie says today, the words slipping around tears. "I thought she was safer being detained. At least we would know where she was. We would know she wasn't running. Perhaps a little harsh, but she'd be safe." Bonnie was hoping for a scared-straight scenario, hoping that the tough-love embrace of the state would even her out.
The judge's pen went into action. Because Bonnie was a victim, the court placed a no-contact order between mother and daughter, a typical precaution in cases of domestic violence. The judge then issued a court order placing Cathy with the state. The teenager was handed over to ChildNet, a nonprofit group that contracts with the state Department of Children and Families to handle child welfare services in Broward and Palm Beach counties. Cathy was assigned a child advocate, or a point-person for managing her care and, in turn, placed in the New Lighthouse Group Home, a three-bedroom split-level house in Chula Vista, a residential neighborhood in Fort Lauderdale. The facility houses six girls between the ages of 13 and 17 who are facing juvenile criminal charges.
Although barred from contacting her daughter, Bonnie felt relieved that Cathy would be in a controlled environment — until she pulled up Cathy's Instagram feed over the next couple of weeks. On it: shots from raves and parties at the Hard Rock Casino. "Pictures of her mostly naked," Bonnie says. In the captions, the teen talked about being "higher than the clouds."
Bonnie was stunned. She thought her daughter was being closely supervised. Instead she was out partying — on a weeknight? "I'm just wondering, has she been reported missing? Does the group home even know?" Bonnie says. "A hundred questions pop into your head."
Bonnie says the state's care of Cathy couldn't have backfired more. Cases like hers are not isolated. Lawyers at the Broward Public Defender's Office have repeatedly heard from their juvenile clients that because of lax supervision, shocking behaviors like drug-dealing and prostitution routinely take place at group homes. Police reports and court records obtained by New Times likewise describe incidents of prostitution and gang activity at several homes, and an audit conducted by the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) itself concedes that several agencies, including ChildNet, do not adequately supervise the facilities. Little is being done to remedy the problem, but administrators insist they are doing the best they can with the resources they have for some of the state's most troubled and tough-to-manage kids.
"The biggest thing I took away was that these children all seemed like they were in a collective state of depression," says Gordon Weekes, an attorney in charge of juvenile cases at thee Broward Public Defender's Office. "It seems contagious in the houses. All the children have serious levels of trauma — that was not addressed. The children seem to be recoiling into their own depression."
Unfortunately for Bonnie, her daughter's situation would only get worse.
Illustration by Joseph Laney
Although Cathy was not allowed to contact Bonnie, Ed sometimes stopped by New Lighthouse to visit his daughter. He recalls that there was inconsistency in the check-in process. Sometimes a staff member would ask Ed for his ID and to sign in. Other times, the staff member wouldn't even get off the couch or acknowledge Ed's presence, he says. "No ID, no anything," Ed recalls."I thought, 'Wow. I could have been her boyfriend, whoever.'?"
Cathy told him that, inside, "everybody wanted to fight everybody," Ed says. "None of the girls got along. She said it was a terrible situation."
Cathy's older sister reported that Cathy had gotten into a brawl with a fellow resident, resulting in bite marks on her sister's shoulder. Cathy got arrested again, this time for shoplifting at a Macy's. Later, Bonnie learned her daughter had run away from the group home for three days — no one alerted Bonnie or Ed, the mother and father say.
Online, Bonnie also continued to see pictures of her daughter out partying, she says. When she logged onto the school system's parent portal to see how Cathy was faring in class, she learned her daughter wasn't showing up. Bonnie pushed for ChildNet to arrange transportation. When she emailed Cathy's ChildNet child advocate asking why she was truant, Bonnie got back a curt response.
"Your daughter has a school bus," an email shows the employee replied. "Whether she gets on it or not is unknown."
At Christmastime, Cathy had been in the group home nearly two months but was able to celebrate with her dad and sisters. When Bonnie saw pictures from their get-together, she noticed Cathy had expensive-looking manicured nails, hair extensions, and costly Tory Burch sandals. Cathy's sisters reported that she'd had a $100 bill in her purse. "Where did that come from?" Bonnie wondered. The mother's mind raced with worst-case scenarios. "Human trafficking? Prostitution?"
When she tried to get answers, staff at the home would not return calls or would say they were not allowed to give out information, Bonnie claims.
Florida's child-care system is a textbook example of outsource economics. Children facing criminal charges can be sent to either youth offender facilities run by the Department of Juvenile Justice (what insiders call "the delinquency system") or, if they have been abandoned or abused, to facilities that fall under the Department of Children and Families ("the dependency system"); the two groups usually overlap.
With the dependency system, children enter a giant bureaucracy that has several layers of subcontractors. In some counties, the DCF manages foster care and group homes directly. But in 20 counties, the DCF uses contractors — called Community-Based Care Lead Agencies (or CBCs) — as middlemen, which then subcontract with and oversee independently run group homes.
ChildNet is the CBC serving both Broward and Palm Beach counties. It subcontracts with 51 agencies in the two counties. The Broward branch serves 3,124 children with a staff of 404 and a $75 million budget; Palm Beach works with 2,557 kids, 109 staffers, and $48 million, according to state figures. (In Miami, a CBC called Our Kids of Miami-Dade/Monroe oversees group homes.)
Regulations laid out by the DCF specify that rooms must be a certain square footage, that a bathroom is required for "every six residents," and that at least three meals a day be provided. The site must be staffed at all times. "Facility operators" — the main person in charge of the facility — are required to have "at least 90 credit hours of accredited college level coursework" or a high school degree and three years of experience working with children. Staffers need a high school diploma or equivalent and must pass a local law enforcement screening.
"The facility shall take all reasonable precautions to assure that no client is exposed to, or instigates, such behaviors as might be physically or emotionally injurious to him/herself or to another person," the regulations state. In the event of a runaway, the DCF is clear: "Beyond one hour after determining that a child... is missing, staff shall immediately call local law enforcement and report the missing resident." The guidelines also require group home staff to report all "critical incidents" to the DCF within an hour of the incident.
But the guidelines do not lay out specifics regarding curfews, check-in or check-out policy, or security measures.
It falls to each CBC to establish standards for subcontractors and make sure they are complying with regulations. CBCs are also supposed to create a monitoring plan for each group home. Each is supposed to be visited by a contract manager quarterly and reviewed by a monitoring team every one to three years, depending on whether it's classified as low-, medium-, or high-risk. The review involves a prearranged onsite inspection where ChildNet staffers comb through a random sample of client and personnel files and interview staff and residents. If problems are uncovered, the provider must come up with a Performance Improvement Plan within 30 days.
New Lighthouse, the group home Cathy was sent to, is run by Fountain of Life Community Development Center, a faith-based nonprofit. The home's tax records show that it is also known as Project Touch Inc. It received $380,429 in public support in 2013.
According to documents provided by ChildNet, New Lighthouse's latest monitoring took place in January 2013. The facility was found to be 100 percent in compliance, although the document noted, "In some instances, if the child has run away from the group home, the provider did not follow the procedures in the ChildNet policy."
The agency's CEO, Dr. Sherron Parrish, did not return calls for comment for this article. On tax records, Parrish's salary is listed at $48,000, and she reports an additional $27,000 compensation from "related organizations."
On her website, the "pastor, entrepreneur, speaker, financial coach, [and] community leader" states that in "1986 she became licensed as a prophetess" and has a certificate and associate's degree from International Seminary in Plymouth, Florida, and bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees from Friends International Christian University in Merced, California. (Neither organization holds an accreditation recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.)
New Lighthouse's website states that residents would learn "Life preparation skills" and get "therapeutic training to improve behavior." The mission statement also says, "The ability to curb their instinct to run away is of paramount importance," though it's a "continuous process."
Bonnie and Ed say they doubt their daughter got any "therapeutic training" while at New Lighthouse.
But by the time her stay was over, she would definitely need it.
Illustration by Joseph Laney
Cathy's story is not isolated.
Broward's public defenders see troubling cases every day. For Lauren Robinette, a young attorney tasked with defending juvenile offenders, it wasn't one story but a string of reports that made her concerned about the management — or lack of it — at group homes.
Robinette's clients told her about violence and lack of supervision, even whispers about prostitution and sex trafficking.
"I felt like they were just being warehoused there," Robinette says today. "When you would go there, there's no rules, no restrictions."
Robinette enlisted help from her boss, Weekes, the chief assistant public defender in the juvenile division. Together, the two attorneys began making unannounced visits to clients living at group homes across Broward.
"Although they had a shelter over their heads, there really was no level of parental supervision that you would expect for girls who are 15, 16, or 17 years of age," Weekes says. "They could come and go as they please. They were basically governing themselves. These teenagers were placed in the environment because they had been previously abused or neglected, so it seemed contrary to [conditions that] should be provided for these girls."
The attorneys say they would arrive at 10 a.m. on a weekday and find kids still in bed. No one was going to school.
"They are not forced to go," Robinette points out. "If you have a parent who doesn't get a child to school, they can be charged criminally. But the State of Florida doesn't have any consequences for not getting these children to school."
"This exposes the failing of privatization," Weekes says. "Privatization allows the state to alleviate itself of responsibility."
Florida administrative code states that individual facilities must provide transportation for appointments and that "Each facility must provide the level of supervision necessary to ensure that residents are protected from harm and that a safe and healthy living environment is created and maintained."
Beyond that, the public defenders say standards seemed nonexistent or at least poorly enforced. For instance, teens reported that although the group homes had stated curfews, they knew that police wouldn't be called until hours later, so they exploited the system and stayed out late.
By last September, Weekes had seen enough to pool his concerns into a strongly worded letter to DCF Interim Secretary Mike Carroll.
"It is extremely disturbing that foster care children who have often already endured significant trauma resulting from abuse, abandonment, or neglect are also being subjected to equally abusive environments while in the care, custody, and supposed protection of the State of Florida," Weekes wrote. "Foster girls that reside at the... group homes are fearful and do not feel safe or protected in these state-funded environments."
Specifically, Weekes' letter focused on three Broward group homes.
The ARRIS (which stands for "Accountability Respect Responsibility Integrity Self-Esteem") and AESHA ("Acts Emergency Shelter Home for Adolescents") girls' homes are a pair of properties located next to each other on a residential street north of Sunrise Boulevard near Warfield Park in Fort Lauderdale. Together, the two buildings house 19 girls between the ages of 12 and 17. The homes are owned by the Agency for Community Treatment Services Inc. (ACTS), a Tampa-based nonprofit that provides substance-abuse treatment, housing, and juvenile justice services to more than 6,000 youths across the state with a $15 million annual budget.
The Crescent boys' home is an emergency shelter located ten blocks west of the ARRIS/AESHA site and houses 22 boys aged 12 to 17, all with "elevated risk factors" such as chronic runaway issues and substance abuse. The property is owned by Chrysalis Health Inc., a for-profit Broward-based health-care provider. (Chrysalis Health did not return calls for comment for this article.)
One ARRIS resident had told her public defender she'd been sexually assaulted while sleeping in September 2014. Another complained of being attacked and battered by three other residents in May 2014. The attorneys heard of regular prostitution at the homes, and bad behavior seemed contagious. "At Crescent, I would have boys there, they would have zero criminal cases going in," Robinette explains. "After staying at Crescent, they would have five, six, seven cases."
Because of restrictions on public access to records involving juvenile offenders, New Times could not verify the specific claims in Weekes' letter. But police records show that between January 2012 and October 2014, Fort Lauderdale Police made 71 visits to AESHA, 111 to ARRIS, and 229 to Crescent. A sampling of incident reports seems to back up the public defenders' concerns.
Drug use was noted at the homes. In November 2012, a girl staying at ARRIS told Fort Lauderdale Police that "she occasionally sold marijuana and crack cocaine and that she smokes weed every day." In January 2013, patrol cars responded to reports that young men had been seen jumping over the fence at Crescent. When officers arrived, they found a still-hot marijuana pipe in the backyard.
Calls regarding violence were even more common. In September 2012, police responded to Crescent when three boys locked a staff member in a dark room after she refused to let them use the phone. In March 2013, Crescent staff called police when two residents began fighting and one pulled a knife. That same month, a random search found a "Taser inside a Bible" hidden by a resident at Crescent. That April, a resident angrily flashed a three-inch knife at a staff member; later, another staff member was struck in the head.
Gangland drama even spilled into the group homes. In June 2013, a youth staying at Crescent told police he'd been walking the street when a group of Crips gang members attacked, robbed, and tasered him. In July 2012, a teenaged male Blood gang member who'd been arrested for homicide by the Broward Sheriff's Office had made a death threat to his girlfriend, who he believed had ratted him out for the murder. The girl, a "Ruby," or female Blood member, was staying at AESHA. Police noted in their report that the girl was rumored to "frequently facilitate meetings between girls from the [AESHA and ARRIS] houses and adults (men and women). These meetings involve the girls having sex with the adults and then being paid $15.00."
Police also responded — along with child protective investigators — to reports of prostitution and sex trafficking. In May 2013, police investigated a report that a juvenile girl had run from ARRIS for Tampa, where the girl had "performed sex for money, so that she could get back to Ft. Lauderdale." Two months later, an ARRIS resident told police a man in a blue car regularly drove up and "asks the girls to come with him and exchange currency for sexual acts." She said the girls were known as "group home hoes" and admitted she "had been arrested for prostitution before and she lists herself in 'backpages'?" — a reference to the escort site backpage.com. The girl told police she longed to land a real job so she could "stop selling her vagina."
Two other girls at the home, however, denied the stories about prostitution. A staff member also denied prostitution was happening but conceded that "girls are always hanging out with boys in the area." A year later, an employee "stated she only heard rumors but cannot say for sure" that one resident engaged in prostitution. The girl herself admitted she used to prostitute herself but stopped.
In May 2014, when police responded to a runaway call at AESHA, an employee stated "that the facility's policy is to report the children missing if they do not return before 4 a.m." — apparently in violation of DCF regulations.
Illustration by Joseph Laney
On a Wednesday morning this January, Bonnie was hustling to get to the courthouse for a hearing in Cathy's criminal case. While filling her gas tank, a text message from her oldest daughter flashed on her cell. "I just saw the words 'raped' and 'punched in the face,'?" she remembers today.
As Cathy would later explain to an investigator from the BSO, she was walking around Sawgrass Mills Mall by herself "when she was approached by a black male and black female," the detective wrote in the report. The man introduced himself as a representative from a modeling agency and said the woman was his girlfriend. He invited Cathy to dinner to discuss how she could become a model.
She got into a white four-door pickup with the couple, the report says. Cathy noted that they got off the highway in Pompano Beach. They arrived at a small gray house. But then the man's girlfriend quickly left for work, leaving the 16-year-old alone inside with the strange man. Cathy told police he "punched her in the face and ripped her pants as he pulled them down, then raped her."
After the assault, the attacker dropped Cathy off at her sister's boyfriend's house but warned her to keep quiet or he'd kill her or her sister, "since he now knew where she lived." Cathy's sister took her to Westside Memorial Hospital. Staff there reported the rape to police.
But when investigators tried to flesh out more details of the attack, the teen clammed up, saying, "I don't want to get involved." As such, the case has led to no arrests.
For Bonnie, the worst-case scenario had now come true. She left the gas station and continued on to the courthouse, where she demanded the custody of her child back, the no-contact order be damned.
Mother and daughter were reunited hours later in the courthouse hallway. The girl limped over to hug her mom, tears wetting both their faces. Cathy told Bonnie she was still bleeding from the attack.
Some group-home operators say they are doing the best they can. Richard E. Brown, the CEO of the nonprofit that manages ARRIS and AESHA (his salary: $164,874, according to 2013 tax records), has a tired sag in his voice when he describes the issues outlined in the Broward Public Defender's letter. From his point of view, ACTS is stuck in a tough position, providing housing and meals as required but with little authority to control residents.
Brown says ACTS staffers will always try to dissuade a resident from leaving, but "we can't restrain them against their will. It's basically a hands-off system," Brown tells New Times. "If somebody wants to walk away, there is not any authority on our part to prevent that from happening. That's built into the system. That's not necessarily our preference."
He says the residents are "supervised 24/7," but unfortunately, the children bunking at ARRIS and AESHA come with baggage, including connections to the sex work.
"We're the deep end of the system," he says. "A lot of the girls come there with that experience already in their lifestyle. It's a dynamic that we are wanting to deal with. It's not that we can choose who we admit. We have to take what comes to us and have to work to provide a safe and secure environment as best we can."
When contacted with questions about Cathy's case and the facility's policies, New Lighthouse provided only the following statement: "Our group home is in compliance and has policies in place to ensure adequate supervision for our clients. Our staff are also well-trained and have been following the proper protocols and procedures."
ChildNet CEO Emilio Benitez (his salary: $254,300, according to 2012 tax records) responded to questions with the following statements: "Children in group homes are there to learn independent living skills and experience normalcy. All children and adolescents are monitored and carefully supervised, but residential care facilities are not juvenile detention facilities, and these children are not under lock and key."
Benitez continued: "While we are prohibited by law from discussing any particular case, client, or incident, it's important to know that we are taking the time to reassess the residential model and determine the best path forward."
Following Weekes' letter last September, the DCF's Carroll responded with a review of the allegations, one by one. He said that the September 2014 ARRIS sexual assault was investigated but that "the alleged victim as well as alleged witness denied anything occurred." Crimes that occurred off the property were out of ChildNet's control. In terms of human trafficking, the group homes stated they continued to work with local law enforcement. Problems at Crescent were attributed to "a recent escalation in behaviors from one particular young man that had created a challenging situation." The follow-up report noted that all the facilities mentioned in Weekes' letter were visited by ChildNet monitors in September. No concerns were noted.
According to documents from ChildNet, ARRIS and AESHA were both subject to monitoring in March 2012. ARRIS scored a 97 percent on its compliance, with the only issue falling on the number of residents who had gone to the dentist. AESHA scored a 95 percent.
Still, "staff should show more concern for the children's education," a child advocate noted to monitors. "Don't just allow them to sit around the house and not attend school." Another child advocate responded that the home "needs to have activities both recreational and therapeutic for the client and not allow them to come and go as they want. This is very important for the younger girls and those involved in human trafficking due to the area the program is located in."
ARRIS was also reviewed in March 2014. The facility passed with a 97 percent compliance score. But the monitors noted that only "three of seven applicable girls had demonstrated improvement or maintained passing grades (GPA of 1.0 or above) while in the program."
"Due to the population they serve, the Provider struggles with girls running away and missing their scheduled appointments," the report notes. "It's hard to reach some of the girls who have no direction," a staff told the monitoring team.
Chrysalis Health's centers — including Crescent — were last monitored in June 2012. The review found the site 100 percent compliant with the contract.
After Weekes' letter, the DCF called for a monthly meeting of ChildNet supervisors and subcontractors to discuss group home issues. Kim Gorsuch, DCF's community development administrator for Broward, who organized the meetings, says that around the same time Weekes' letter was received, "we had experienced a significant increase in the numbers of children coming into care, and that is putting stress on the entire system in terms of capacity." But the group hasn't met since June. Gorsuch explains that everyone is anticipating a "considerable conversation about group care" in the next legislative session.
Between January 2014 and February 2015, the DCF performed an audit and inspected six of Florida's 17 CBCs, ChildNet's Palm Beach operation among them. Auditors found that, in some cases, ChildNet had failed to create monitoring plans — a violation of ChildNet's own policy. Confronted, the organization said that such plans were "not useful for planning purposes" but that they were "currently redeveloping" the process to incorporate the required process.
The audit concluded in March 2015 found that while CBCs were failing to keep an eye on subcontractors, the DCF was also failing to watch the CBCs. Across the state, the audit concluded, "The CBCs' subcontractor monitoring efforts need improvements. The Department did not always adequately conduct, document, review, and report the results of CBC monitoring."
The assault charge against Cathy is still pending. A month after she was raped, 12 adults, most armed with legal degrees — including her public defender, her guardian ad litem, her guardian ad litem's attorney, her ChildNet case manager, the manager's supervisor, a ChildNet attorney, and the prosecutor — gathered in a hearing to decide whether Cathy should stay at home or enter another program. Cathy, the lone child in the room, looked puzzled, as though she were struggling to understand the legalese. The hearing stretched for four hours with no decision made. Another hearing was slotted into the calendar weeks down the line.
"Such," Bonnie said bitterly later, "an ineffective system."
Cathy was discharged from New Lighthouse and returned home with Bonnie. In the following months, she began booking from the house at night. Eventually, she was gone for two months. When the girl returned, she was taken to SafePlace, a ChildNet-run emergency shelter. It became a pattern: running away on her own, turning up at SafePlace, running again.
"This is going to sound odd, but I'm almost comforted that she is not in the care of ChildNet, that she is bouncing around all these other places — which is sad," Bonnie said recently, choking down a bout of tears. "I don't feel comfortable about who is looking out for her. Because nobody is."
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