|Battle begins to save Punta Gorda youth rehab center|
|Tuesday, 22 May 2012 10:37|
The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice doesn't plan to renew the contract for AMIKids Crossroads, a 35-bed youth rehab and counseling center on the Charlotte and Glades county line.
But the facility, which supporters say has a long track record of success, is fighting back, with a media campaign and an online petition to Gov. Rick Scott that has gathered 738 signatures. Among its supporters: Republican Reps. Paige Kreegel of Punta Gorda and Kenneth Roberson of Port Charlotte.
"This is a contractual relationship that has existed for 33 years and has been renewed and re-procured a multitude of times," the two lawmakers wrote Scott last week.
The contract expires June 30.
Kreegel and Roberson objected to what they saw as a violation of legislative intent. Proviso language in this year's budget "stipulates that the Department of Juvenile Justice shall first make residential bed reductions in both secure and non-secure beds that are operated by the Department before reducing privately operated non-secure or secure residential beds," they wrote.
That drew a response from DJJ Secretary Wansley Walters.
"Because referrals and commitments to residential programs have declined by almost 50 percent over the past three years, many of these deeper end programs are no longer required," Walters wrote. "However, other critical services for these troubled youth are needed. The expiration of these contracts along with the shifts in the demands for the types of services present an opportunity to partner with the private community, through a competitive process, to ensure the best investment for Florida’s troubled youth."
According to Walters, the number of statewide residential commitments per month decreased from 654 in April 2009 to 285 in April 2012.
As to the Legislature's intent, Walters wrote, "the proviso language contained in the FY 2012-13 General Appropriations Act requires DJJ to review state programs for bed reductions first. We are in the process of reviewing all programs and, in fact, DJJ has already identified state beds to be reduced. We will continue to review all programs throughout the year to balance DJJ’s budget as required by the Legislature."
Crossroads board members told WZVN-TV in Fort Myers that they believe DJJ "isn't renewing their contracts in an effort to keep state positions.
"It was just easy to attack the programs up for renewal that way they don't have to eliminate state beds and state employees," Crossroads board member Lee Swift told WZVN.
Local media have rallied to Crossroads' support.
"The Crossroads closing once again smacks of a long con," editorialized the Charlotte Sun. "With private prison operators liberally greasing the wheels of power in Tallahassee, it’s only a matter of time before the push to privatize DJJ facilities resumes. Not-for-profits like Crossroads, which is operated by AMIKids for $1.7 million a year, cut into the sizable pie for-profit prison operators are targeting."
But DJJ spokesman C. J. Drake said juvenile delinquency "in all categories is declining nationally and in Florida, and that's because we are reforming the system to keep children from going deeper into the system – like residential programs."
DJJ is investing more in front-end programs like civil citations and mental health treatment, Drake said, instead of detention facilities.
"If we want to run government like a business, then we can't expect the taxpayers to fund services that are no longer needed or effective," he said.