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Maura Smith Speaks Out Against Broken Juvenile Centers

Maura Smith  | Published on 6/10/2018

As a retired circuit court judge, I take pride in my community, but I am ashamed of us. I saw the Orange County Regional Juvenile Detention Center 30 years ago and again last year. The facility is so sad and broken. It made me want to cry. I cannot imagine someone wanting to work there for little more than a poverty-level wage.

There is little to stimulate the juvenile body or mind at the JDC. Last summer the League of Women Voters took them books and basketballs, since they had none. The only recreation in evidence was a single outdoor hoop for 120 kids. Since then, the Department of Juvenile Justice has changed supervisors there several times, including a new one who was working to improve things but was ousted nine months ago. A new Florida law requires kids waiting for a spot in a rehabilitation program to be held at a JDC, instead of waiting at home. Because the Orange County JDC is so overcrowded and understaffed, we’re now sending our kids to JDCs in other counties.

There have been major riots at the Orange County JDC in the past nine months, serious injuries, property damage and innocent kids being victimized. And now a brutal rape has occurred at the center. If the tourists who visit our 2 million square foot Orange County Convention Center could see what we do to our young people, they would never come back. Several years ago, DJJ closed Osceola County’s new juvenile detention center and shifted those kids to the Orange County JDC to save money. Osceola should move heaven and earth to restore its own detention center.

We could say all of this is a problem for Florida’s DJJ, since the detention center is run by it. But it’s not. It’s our problem. This place has our name on it. Other communities share or operate their detention centers and have state-of-the-art, safe facilities, like the one in Seminole County. When DJJ moved to close its detention center, Seminole took it over. That takes money.

The Orange County Commission recently heard the public speak and ask for a tax-funded trust for a Children’s Services Council. We are the largest county in the state without one. As a judge, I saw cutting-edge model juvenile programs going to those counties with Children’s Services Councils — not here.

The Orange County Commission concluded that the issue needs to be studied — and if more money is needed, commissioners can act fast. Good to know. But I fear that means we will do nothing again for another year. Law enforcement and judges will continue to perform juvenile triage every day, with few options for placement beds and intervention services, and a hellhole of a detention center.

The Florida Legislature has presented communities with a fast train to success by enacting the law allowing Children’s Services Councils. We should board that train as other communities have done.