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.
Kate laid out her version of the incident to her lawyers, who were even more transfixed when the conversation detoured to daily life in the program. Residents were tied down and injected for minor infractions, Kate explained.
Kate would later tell investigators from the Broward Sheriff's Office that she had been physically restrained 14 times, "and in each instance she was administered medicine (chemical restraint) in which she became 'loopy.' " She "felt medical personnel at Citrus never checked her vital signs when these incidents occurred" and "personnel would also yell and use profanity during these instances."
"We were shocked," Weekes says. "It was sickening that the staffers would become so cold and callous toward these young girls that they would think it was appropriate to tie them down and knock them out routinely."
Still, both attorneys knew to step carefully when dealing with accusations from tough kids. "With any child making any allegations, you are concerned that they had an agenda, so you always want to corroborate," Hittleman says. In the following weeks, the lawyers trekked back out to CATS to interview other residents. "They all told the same or similar stories time and time again. It was ordinary for these young ladies."
In early August, Weekes penned a letter to Esther Jacobo, interim secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families. He outlined the complaints relayed by Kate and other Citrus residents in four points: (1) Kate had been pepper-sprayed and punched by an officer; (2) "Female patients are commonly placed in isolation for prolonged periods of time using a four-point physical restraint technique"; (3) "Minor girls are routinely tied face-down to a bed for minor infractions, without the staff first employing less restrictive alternatives"; and (4) "While tied down by their arms and legs, chemical sedatives are routinely administered to further subdue female patients."
Weekes released the video clip of security-camera footage from the April fight that showed the police officer punching Kate. After media outlets aired the clip, DCF promised to investigate.
Then, a few days after Kate's knockout was filling the top slot on the evening news, a Citrus resident died.
On an afternoon in December 2012, Tanisha Howell sat in the waiting room at CATS. Her 14-year-old son, Octavious, squirmed beside her. This was the last best hope for her baby boy.
In the crib, they had dubbed him "butterball." He had plump cheeks no one could resist kissing. Later, when Octavious began slaying school placement tests, "Einstein" was the new tag. Howell, an executive secretary for Miami-Dade County; and her husband, Robert, a nurse, saw a big personality busting through the spunky kid with jutting ears. He told everyone he was going to study entrepreneurship at Yale University. Before the Howells rounded out their family with three additional kids, Octavious would beg his mom not to have any more children. He wanted her all to himself. "He was a very affectionate, passionate little boy," Howell says.
But by age 3, Octavious would sometimes throw violent tantrums. In school, he'd smash a chair against a window or bolt for traffic. "He'd apologize when it was over," Howell says. "Then he'd do good for a little bit, but when something didn't go his way, he'd start the cycle all over."
He was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, with an oppositional defiant disorder. He was prescribed a battery of meds. Howells hopped her son from program to program for kids with behavioral problems. When he reached middle school, the problems ballooned.
He began running away, eventually notching 22 disappearances. Every time, Howell filed a police report, then spent a sleepless night waiting. Several times, Octavious would be involuntarily institutionalized into Jackson Memorial Hospital under the Baker Act. It was there that someone first suggested Howell look into the Citrus Health Network.
Founded in 1978, the nonprofit today is a string of health facilities for low-income adults and kids, with revenue of $54 million per year. According to its website, Citrus serves 10,000 people annually, half of them minors. The network runs two main health clinics, crisis mental health centers for adults and juveniles, and substance abuse programs. It also provides school-based programs and housing for people who are homeless, mentally ill, and/or transitioning out of foster care.
As part of its sprawling network, Citrus operates two residential facilities for troubled kids under 18 — a 16-bed facility in Hialeah for boys under 14 and CATS in Pembroke Pines, which houses boys and girls between 14 and 18.
These are two of 15 extended-stay facilities in Florida's Statewide Inpatient Psychiatric Program (SIPP) for high-risk kids. They're last resorts for kids referred through DCF's Substance Abuse and Mental Health Program. Judges can order juveniles here, or parents can voluntarily admit them.
According to the latest available tax filings, Citrus receives $25 million a year in contributions and grants. Five of the network's top doctors have salaries north of $200,000. The network's CEO, Mario Jardon, makes more than $400,000.
Citrus is overseen by a 12-person governing board, which until summer 2013 was chaired by Jorge Forte, a consultant who advised entities how to land government contracts. Forte was arrested in August when the FBI alleged that in April 2012, he agreed to accept $20,000 in kickbacks along with his business partner, the mayor of Sweetwater. In November, Forte pleaded guilty to a federal conspiracy charge and was sentenced to one year in prison.
Funding flows to CATS from Medicaid through Florida's Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA). For the 2012-13 financial year, CATS billed $5.7 million for services. Paperwork provided by one former resident shows that Medicaid was billed $406 per day for the care.
Patients inside earn points for good behavior. According to a "Behavioral Management Program Guide" that is passed out to families, there are five stages — introductory, A, B, C, and D. Points are awarded for maintaining good hygiene, doing chores, going to school classes held on campus, and participating in therapy. With each level come more privileges such as extended time on the phone, later bedtimes, and weekend visits home. Any "maladaptive behavior"earns "a point freeze," the program guide says.
"Corporal punishment and fear-eliciting procedures are strictly prohibited," the guide says. Florida administrative code, however, specifies that facilities can use timeouts in five-minute increments or longer periods of seclusion as disciplinary methods.
The law also allows use of extreme tactics — physical restraints, chemical restraints (medication), and seclusion — when patients are deemed an imminent threat to themselves or others. These three methods are deemed Emergency Treatment Orders (ETOs). They must be ordered by a doctor, and only after other, less-invasive tactics are tried first. The law specifies that restraints and seclusions should last a maximum of two hours. The child must be monitored and guardians notified within 24 hours. Afterward, staff and child must meet for debriefings. The whole process is required to be extensively documented in the child's file. The program guide at CATS explains, "Restraint or seclusion use is limited to emergencies."
"The expected length of stay is four months," the document adds.
Howell first put her son in the Hialeah program in April 2011. Octavious responded well. That December, he came home but soon reverted to his old problems.
After a group home in Boca Raton didn't pan out, an exasperated Howell turned back to Citrus. Octavious, now 14, had aged out of the Hialeah program. CATS seemed like his last option.
"What do I do as a mother?" she wondered. "Allow him to stay home? Or do I put him in a program to try and get him some help so that when he comes back out, he'll be a good man?"
The debate was still roaring in her head as she sat in the Pembroke Pines waiting room.
Samantha Wright wasn't inside CATS 24 hours before she was brawling. The runaway, a husky girl with caramel-colored skin, says she had entered the program with a positive attitude. But after that first day, she dumped any ideas about getting better.
In 2010, Wright was a 15-year-old pummeled by depression who smoked weed and ran the streets. With no parents in her life, she bounced between her grandma's and auntie's houses. Wright was scooped up by police and Baker Acted after running away. A judge shipped her off to the program.
But Wright began having second thoughts when she arrived at the peach-colored single-story building that sat amid a drab checkerboard of industrial buildings bisected by tidy plots of crabgrass.
Wright says that on the first day, she sat silent in the activity room with about 20 other girls. "Oh, this ho thinks she can't talk to nobody," another girl said to a friend before flicking a sour look at Wright. "Yeah, I'm talking to you." Wright claims no staff intervened. And with that, Citrus Health Network's newest resident was on her feet, fists swinging wildly. Staff hauled the frantic girl into a white-walled room.
Wright says she was thrown face-down onto a bed. Her twisting right arm was tied to the bedpost. Then her left. Her right leg. The left.
"I'm going to give you a shot," a nurse told the prone girl. "It's called booty juice."
"What the hell is that?" Wright says she said.
"Something to calm you down." When Wright saw they were going to drop her pants and deliver the injection into her ass, she screamed louder. The nurse spiked the girl's arm instead.
Wright's energy began to leave her like air gradually leaking from a balloon. Soon, she was too tired to scream, too tired to open her mouth, too tired to keep her eyelids propped. She awoke later — how long later, she didn't know — red-eyed and woozy.
"I went in with an open mind. I was ready to change," Wright says today. "After that first day when they restrained me, I didn't care."
New Times interviewed six female and one male former residents of CATS, plus several of their parents and grandparents. Each of the youths had done prior long stints in group homes and juvenile justice programs, but all gave similar accounts of Citrus' program.
They said that during the week, they'd met with therapists in group and one-on-one sessions. Some staff cared, but the majority were "very unprofessional," says Monica Lyons, now an 18-year-old who did two stints at CATS. "The staff acted like the kids."
Hillary, who asked that her real name not be used, was a pixie-ish repeat runaway from a broken home. She says the staff "were always taunting us, bullying us. It was a sick environment." Staff would laugh at patients who were so medicated they could barely speak or who were constantly drooling.
Residents interviewed by New Times said there were unclear rules and little consistency in the doling out of punishments. Lyons recalled the facility being so cold, she stepped into the courtyard to get warm. She was punished. Another time, Lyons missed an order that everyone had to stay in their rooms. She walked into the hallway. Punished. Another former resident, Monique Carter, says that when her grandfather passed away, she wasn't allowed to go to the funeral. She became depressed and stopped eating. She was punished.
Hillary says two battling girls once turned the hallway into a cage match, one dragging the other across the floor by her hair. The staff didn't react. But when Hillary ignored an order to come in from the courtyard, she got smashed against the wall by staff, blood spurting from her nose.
Every day, someone was dragged out into the side room where booty juice was administered, Samantha Wright claims. She could hear the screams until the subject would slip under. None of the former residents knows what "booty juice" consisted of, and all say that sometimes the sessions were administered multiple times a day.
Ashley was a mouthy adopted 15-year-old who'd been abandoned by her new family. The girl was already documented as bipolar with two serious suicide attempts. "Honestly, I went crazy at Citrus," she says today. "They had instilled in my mind that I was mentally ill. It came to the point where I believed it. At Citrus, all they wanted to do was restrain you or give you shots."
Ashley would jam whatever she could find — Bics, pencils, combs — into the flesh of her left forearm. The injuries were so severe that she was continuously hurried off to the hospital. She would be sent back to CATS, then tear open her bandage and mutilate herself again. The repeat trip to the hospitals were cries for help, she says today. "At the hospital, I would try and tell people about the place, but they would always take me back."
Tanisha Howell's high hopes were in a tailspin. Weeks stacked up into months. Octavious couldn't seem to work himself out of level A. Howell believed by constantly busting down kids, there was no feeling of traction. It was a frustrating hamster wheel."Then what kind of hope do you have of getting out of the program?" she says.
Howell says the punishments for Octavious were unjustified. He fought with his roommates — but only because other boys stole his new underwear and threatened to urinate all over Octavious' clothing. If he went to the bathroom without permission, he was busted for trespassing. "The bathroom?" Howell wondered. The concerned mom says she always got the same response from staff: "It's up to the child, how the child reacts to the program."
Still, Octavious was generally upbeat whenever Howell stopped in for family therapy or chatted on the phone. He led Bible studies and only griped about the bad food. But Howell suspected she wasn't getting the whole story from her normally talkative boy. Howell says she does not know the full extent of ETOs used on her son; she remembers being told that he'd been restrained and that Benadryl had been administered on occasion.
By August, when Octavious had been in CATS for nine months, Howell was getting frustrated. He was still on level A. "You're on the medication — no progress. You're doing your therapy and your treatment — no progress. You haven't made any progress since December 19, 2012, so what's the purpose of being in the program?"
She thought perhaps it was time to take him out of the program. But she would never get the chance.
Responsibility for what happens at CATS is spread among a bureaucratic maze of government agencies.
CATS is accredited every three years by the Joint Commission, a nonprofit organization that greenlights health-care facilities across the country. AHCA issues the facility its license and is supposed to ensure compliance with rules regarding facilities, staffing, and operating procedures. The agency does annual reviews and also investigates when complaints are filed online or via phone. Florida's Department of Children and Families also fields complaints about treatment of children via phone and the internet. In Broward, DCF investigates each complaint through the Broward Sheriff's Office.
Records show that between 2008 and today, AHCA found multiple deficiencies in 11 investigations at CATS. (Citrus Health Network's program in Hialeah had three in the same period.)
AHCA found that the center failed to provide blinds in resident rooms for privacy and that kitchen staff did not follow menu protocol as required. (They just "prepare foods that the residents like," a CATS staffer reported.) In 2010, AHCA found three incidents of residents who claimed to have been injured by staff. One claimed he was tackled, another was punched in the face, and the third claimed a staff member tripped him with a bench. In July 2011, surveyors discovered that a resident had escaped from a Citrus van idling at a red light on the way from the dentist. The program had failed to follow required ratios of staff to residents, and its van was not equipped with childproof locks.
Deficiencies in training and record-keeping were recurring problems. AHCA found instances when staff members were not current on their required CPR or physical-restraint training. In 2013, an employee had worked at the facility for eight months without once receiving the required restraint training.
At least twice, AHCA discovered that patients were given high-powered medications without prior consent of their legal guardians. A nurse told investigators medication was provided when children "asked for something to calm down or help them sleep." In one incident, the nurse handed over a dose of Zyprexa Zydis, a heavy-duty antipsychotic.
Last September, AHCA interviewed two Citrus residents who were in their second trimester of pregnancy. The girls complained they weren't getting extra food for their growing stomachs. The patients' charts made no mention of extra nutrition.
A 2013 review found at least one incident in which a resident claimed she was tied down and given a chemical restraint, but the nurse made no mention of the restraint in the patient's file. AHCA found numerous occasions in which there was no documentation that follow-up steps like parental notification and debriefs were ever executed.
DCF had its own litany of incoming complaints: Between 2010 and July 2013, more than 80 reports about CATS were registered via abuse hotlines.
Among the allegations:
• The staff asked a patient "uncomfortable questions" about the patient's "sexual experience" such as "is you fucking?" and "you ain't fucking nothing big."
• "The facility is dirty... the staff is not allowing" the patient and others "to bathe when they are on their menstrual cycle. It is unknown why."
• While getting restrained, a child was choked. "The child could not breathe and had an asthma attack. The child also sustained bruises."
• A patient described "being bullied by other children in the facility" to the point of not being able to sleep at night for fear of injury. The "staff and teachers have done nothing about" the bullying, so much so that the child constantly walks in front of the facility's security cameras in case the child "was to get beat up it would be caught on camera."
• "At the facility there are bed bugs that are biting the residents. The food has had hair in it."
• A staff member had been "soliciting" a patient "for sex." The staff member gave the patient his or her "contact information because [the patient] is leaving the facility at the end of the week" and the staffer said he or she "wants to make contact."
• "There was a spider in the tuna," one report claims. "The children that ate this tuna got a fever and were vomiting. Staff treated the children for this illness... A child from the program died on 8/8/13."
DCF would not release details of the investigations except to rule them "no indicator" (no proof), "not substantiated" (some evidence, but not proven), or "validated."
Of the 60 or so serious complaints for which New Times asked the disposition, not one was validated.
After attorney Gordon Weekes wrote his letter, two investigations were opened into CATS, one led by the Broward Sheriff's Office's Child Protective Investigations Section, the other by SFBHN.
These substantiated many of the teenagers' complaints.
The latter report supported all of Weekes' allegations — that kids are routinely tied down and shot up without first using less-restrictive techniques — and concluded that "patterns have been developed by individual staff as well as the program at large that are not conducive to the population served."
The BSO interviewed all 52 current residents at CATS and analyzed the facility's records. CATS was found to use timeout, but never seclusion, before resorting to restraints. The agency found that in just seven and a half months — between January 1 and August 13 of last year — the facility had restrained girls 81 times and boys 32 times for a total of 113 ETOs, an average of once every other day.
When kids were restrained, monitoring staff sometimes chatted on their personal cell phones. And the staff were hardly more educated than the patients: "The front line personnel, Mental Health Technicians (MHT)s," were equipped "primarily with high school education... The majority of patient care and interventions are with the MHTs." Many patients "felt when admitted they were not explained restraints, time-out, etc. when signing orientation papers."
The other report noted that over two days in June 2013, just two staff members initiated 21 ETOs. "Thirty-one percent of the time, the consumers stayed in physical restraints the full two-hour" period. Overall, the program "has shown an increase in the use of ETOs" each year since 2011.
That frequency is "not normal," says Michael Dale, a former litigator and professor at Nova Southeastern University's law school who has sued institutions on behalf of neglected children.
In fact, the use of restraint is being phased out of many institutions, according to Dr. Wanda Mohr, a former professor of adolescent psychiatric nursing at Rutgers University who has studied restraint and its effects on mentally ill children. "At most of your places where people are professional, where they care about the patients more than the bottom line, they are going to have a very low use of restraint," she says. "They don't work. You might temporarily contain some explosive behavior, but you haven't really taught anybody anything." In fact, Mohr opines that the entire level-based program is completely useless. "You create this punitive environment where the staff is picking up on these stupid issues," she says. "So he used the f word? What are his bigger issues? Why can't he modulate his emotional responses?" The misbehavior continues, and "the kids develop a hopelessness because their symptoms mean they can't negotiate the program."
Mohr estimates that facilities similar to CATS might see one or two legitimate uses of restraint per week. "At many facilities, if anybody sees the use of restraints creeping up, there's usually a meeting to see what the heck is going on." Restraint is particularly wrong when dealing with abused kids, Mohr says. "When someone is manhandling you, especially when you're having male-on-female restraint, it piles trauma upon trauma."
And who knows whether Citrus' records are even accurate? The SFBHN report found multiple occasions when Citrus staff administered psychotropic medications but failed to report them as ETOs — 40 times with 19 patients in 2013 alone. While Kate told investigators she had been restrained and shot up with booty juice 14 times, records from CATS tracked only eight instances. The BSO found that after Kate was arrested, a CATS report noted her arrest but left out the fact that an officer had punched her in the face.
None of the reports give the medical name for "booty juice." They refer to the substances at CATS only as "psychotropic medications," a large category of medicines that alter brain functions like mood, consciousness, or cognition. One grandmother of a CATS patient told New Times that the staff told her that her granddaughter had been injected with Haldol, an antipsychotic, to calm her.
Despite the reports' findings, there's little accountability for Citrus.
Broward Sheriff and SFBHN reports only offer "suggestions" — that Citrus "reconsider" using the prone position, try less-restrictive techniques before reaching for the needle, and keep better track of restraint.
John Dow, head of SFBHN, would tell New Times only, "We continue to pursue corrective action when needed."
Sheriff's investigators redirected inquiries about their investigation to DCF.
DCF redirected inquiries about the facility's contract and license to SFBHN and AHCA. ("The issues and deficiencies identified were addressed, and action was taken," said a DCF spokesperson.)
AHCA typically gives facilities 30 days to correct the issues or to put together a "plan for correction" within ten days. Whenever Citrus has been found with deficiencies, records show the nonprofit has addressed the issues.
Spokesperson Shelisha Coleman told New Times in an email: "The Agency's area office... collaborated on an annual onsite review of the Citrus CATS program on November 5-6, 2013. At that time, no performance improvement plans were required by the Agency."
Despite numerous calls and emails to Citrus Health Network chief Jardon and calls to seven members of the board, no one responded to requests for comment for this article.
"They're favorable to the business entity, not favorable to the child," says a frustrated Weekes. "They give the company every opportunity to fix it. But what happens to the children while they're trying to fix it? They're still there.
"If you find credible evidence, you need to be moving swiftly to secure the child, not giving the business entity the opportunity to protect its profit-generator — the state contract."
On a Sunday night last August, Tanisha Howell's phone buzzed. A Citrus Health Network staffer told her that Octavious had been taken to the hospital. He was running a fever and had stomach pains. The next day, he was released with a prescription for antibiotics. The doctors suspected colitis.
A day later, though, Octavious was back in the hospital. When Howell walked into her son's room at Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital bearing get-well balloons, she was surprised. Octavious was considerably skinnier than the week before. She noticed a layer of grime on his skin. Still, they had a nice visit, laughing together some and putting together a puzzle.
When Howell returned on Thursday, however, Octavious was listless. She spoon-fed him some mashed potatoes. He threw them up. Howell noticed his toilet bowl was caked in diarrhea. Before she left at 1 a.m., Octavious asked his mom to tuck him in. "He was my big boy, but he was still my baby," she says today. Before walking out, Howell noticed her son's chest was working overtime to get air. She would mention it to the doctor the next day.
"We never made it to Friday," she says.
Octavious went into cardiac arrest around 5 a.m.
An autopsy conducted two days after Octavious' death concluded the boy had died of natural causes from myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscles. The family doesn't see it that simply. It plans a lawsuit against the individuals responsible for Octavious' care — including Citrus.
"We've got an expert taking a look right now," says Howell's attorney, H.T. Smith. "Clearly it's more than natural causes, and we'll bring that forward in the litigation."
In January, Kate sat in a small, windowless room off a judge's chambers on the fifth floor of the Broward County Courthouse. She wore a simple blue shirt and jeans, her left hand nervously snapping at the hair ties looped around her wrist. Her eyes were burnt red from tears.
A case worker had driven the now-15-year-old from her new facility. Despite her lawyer's advice to plead out on her felony charge, the former CATS resident arrived with every intention of climbing the witness stand.
She wanted the world to know about that place. She wanted to talk about the April incident, about how she is doing now in the new program, about how far she's come from being the girl on the wrong end of a policeman's fist.
Instead, the prosecutor asked the judge for more time. The judge declined. The state, unprepared to go forward, dropped the charges. But instead of celebrating, Kate retreated to this room to sob, her shot at setting the record straight gone.
Defeated, she opened up just a little, for a smaller audience now.
"It was hell in there," she said.