DRUGS A Youth-Care Worker Is Arrested for Trying to Sell Marijuana; VIOLENCE A Worker Is Charged with Pulling a Knife on a 16-Year-Old BEHAVIOR A Worker Is Fired after Sexual Touching with a 16-Year-Old TROUBLED-YOUTH FACILITY HAS TROUBLES OF ITS OWN

Article excerpt

Byline: DEIRDRE CONNER

HASTINGS - Teens are sent to the Hastings Youth Academy with a criminal past and a tenuous future.

But the facility, designed to turn young criminal offenders' lives around, has become mired in allegations of drugs, assaults and romantic liaisons.

State officials said they are concerned. They have required a corrective plan from the private company that has a $19.3 million contract to run the youth academy, but the three-year taxpayer-funded contract isn't in jeopardy.

The firm, Group 4 Securicor Youth Services, acknowledges the program has been what Chief Executive Officer Gail Browne calls "declining," but it promises change.

Among the most serious allegations about the Hastings Youth Academy since Group 4 Securicor Youth Services took over a year and a half ago:

- Two workers were arrested for crimes involving youths at the facility.

- Three workers were found to be having romantic relationships with youths.

- State inspectors were called to the facility nine times and substantiated seven misconduct claims; others are pending.

- Four youths escaped during that time, all in a six-month period in late 2006.

"I will tell you that we're concerned - we're very concerned - about ... Hastings," Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Walter McNeil told the Times-Union last month while in Jacksonville for public hearings.

McNeil, appointed in January by Gov. Charlie Crist, said the state is working to resolve issues there.

"We will not stand for any [employee], whether it's a DJJ employee or a contractor employee, mistreating the children," McNeil said.

This isn't the first time a Group 4 Securicor-run Northeast Florida facility has made headlines. Last year, a Jacksonville teen died at Cypress Creek Juvenile Offender Corrections Center. Workers thought he was playing a prank - by lying motionless and unresponsive - and didn't immediately call 911.

KEEPING THE SHERIFF'S OFFICE BUSY

Hastings Youth Academy is designed for juvenile offenders considered "high risk" or "moderate risk," which means they could have committed crimes that range from trespassing on school property to aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

The St. Johns County Sheriff's Office was called to the Florida 207 facility about 150 times from January 2006 to Sept. 11, according to Sheriff's Office statistics. The calls include everything from incidents of escape to assault to drugs being found.

In some cases, there have been allegations of inappropriate touching by staff members or of staffers selling drugs to the 14- to 19-year-old males housed there.

In two of the most recent incidents, youth care worker Paulette Michner was arrested on charges of taking marijuana into the facility to sell and this spring, youth care worker Cynthia Terrell was fired after videotapes showed her and witnesses told of her engaging in sexual touching with a youth during class. She wasn't charged with a crime because the youth was 16 and was the one touching her, according to St. Johns County Sheriff's Office spokesman Chuck Mulligan.

Browne said the company is "ruthless" when it comes to reporting such incidents and has a low tolerance for employee misconduct.

She places some of the blame for problems on a lack of money. She said that has kept front-line staff salaries down - some are paid $8 an hour - and leads to trouble recruiting staff members who are more likely to stay out of trouble.

"Over the years, that has really hurt the program, all of our programs - but especially Hastings," Browne said. She said the facility's remote location in western St. Johns County and its proximity to St. Augustine mean more enjoyable service jobs are available elsewhere.

A CHANGE OF SERVICE COURSE

Soon the facility will house only moderate-risk youths, with the high risks already transferred and those spaces being converted to use by moderate-risk youths who need intensive mental health services. …