Cold fluorescent light bounces off the slick white floors of the hallway. Doors slam; girls scream in the distance. A half dozen police officers march across the tile. Staffers wrapped in blue hospital scrubs trot behind. Outside, 20 cop cruisers and two ambulances paint the parking lot with their reds and blues, responding to a dispatch call of a possible riot.
Fourteen-year-old Kate paces down the hall of the facility for mentally ill teenagers, seemingly glassed away from the chaos. Head down, steps slow as a sleepwalker's. She's just under five feet, baby fat rounding a frame that's covered in a pink hoodie and khaki pants.
As a security video clearly shows, a crewcut police officer darts to Kate's side. A gloved hand reaches for her left arm. Like a sprung trap, she twists around, her right hand crashing two quick blows against the officer's shoulder. His gloved right fist pulls back, then slams into her face. As Kate crumples, the officer clamps down on the back of her head, taking her to the floor. More cops pile in. With Kate pinned beneath his weight, the officer winds up and fires another punch.
"Why are you hitting her!?" someone screams.
Before April 28, 2013, was over, Kate would be pepper-sprayed and hauled off in handcuffs. Later, the teenaged orphan would be charged with battery of a law enforcement officer, a felony.
Ultimately, her arrest would bring attention to a little-known, publicly funded facility — the Center for Adolescent Treatment Services (CATS), a 56-bed program in Pembroke Pines that's run by a Hialeah-based nonprofit group called Citrus Health Network. Former residents describe CATS as a gulag-like holding pen for damaged, low-income kids. Inside, children compete to earn "points" while supervised by a low-educated and reportedly abusive staff — think One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest meets The Hunger Games. Worse, residents claim they were regularly tied face-down to beds with four-point restraints and shot up with a mysterious chemical sedative they took to calling "booty juice."
New Times examined complaints about the facility that were filed with multiple agencies. Official investigations found that many complaints were fully or partially substantiated. But the paper trail leads only to a bureaucratic dumpster fire, where regulations are loosely enforced and responsibility ping-pongs from agency to agency. Meanwhile, the Citrus Health Network continues to hoover up millions of taxpayer dollars while getting slapped with a few largely toothless "recommendations."
Perhaps the August death of a 14-year-old Citrus resident might finally make a difference.
Gordon Weekes could barely believe what he was hearing. The tall, dreadlocked attorney sat inside a dingy conference room at CATS with Jeff Hittleman, another lawyer from his office. Across sat their new client. Before long, Kate (whose name has been changed because she is a juvenile) unloaded.
For 16 years, Weekes had been a public defender in Broward County specializing in juvenile justice, but he had never heard of the Citrus Health Network or its CATS program before Kate's case landed on his desk.
"We see in the course of our work different scenarios, and some of them are pretty shocking," Weekes recalls. "This was off the scales."
Kate's backstory alone was crammed with more hard knocks than most people see in a lifetime. When she was 9, her mother was killed in a car accident. At 10, her father died of an aneurysm. The cousins she was placed with were emotionally abusive. Documents state that "her dependency child abuse record... contained 24 prior intake reports." Kate, now a ward of the state, pinballed between group homes and teen programs and was arrested three times before a judge ordered her to CATS.
Kate had been at CATS only a few weeks when, according to an investigation done months later by the South Florida Behavioral Health Network (SFBHN), a group of eight girls began fighting after a kickball game. An employee called police to report a riot in progress. When 20 police cars screeched up to the center, the girls, "who had been fighting previously, began to instigate, use disrespectful, foul language, and refused orders made by police."
The report states that Kate "was interviewed and revealed that she had poured soap on the floor with the intention of making the officers slip. She stated that the officers were telling the patients to 'calm down' and she told them to 'leave us alone.' " She paced the hallway to calm herself — a coping skill she'd learned in therapy.
After the police officer assaulted her, "the pepper spray caused an asthma attack, so the nurse brought her an asthma pump. Once placed into the police car, she reported kicking the window in an attempt to break it. As a result, she was pepper sprayed again. She reported an ambulance came and she was provided with saline spray for the burning of her eyes. She was then transported to the Juvenile Assessment Center where she stated she did not want to live. She was then Baker Acted and transported by police to a Baker Act receiving facility. A short time later, she appeared in front of her judge who ordered her back into the Citrus CATS" program.