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Teen girls halfway house being closed

By Kathleen Chapman
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
February 11, 2005

A teen halfway house outsourced to a for-profit company will close at the end of the month after repeated reports of escapes, fights and calls to the police by staff seeking help in controlling the girls.

State juvenile justice officials said they told the company, Psychotherapeutic Services Inc., that they did not plan to renew its contract to run the program for 20 young female offenders at the South Florida Halfway House in Lantana. Company leaders say they weren't getting enough money from the state to run the program and agreed to close March 1.

Inexperienced staff members at the halfway house were having trouble controlling the girls and were quitting at an alarming rate, said Darryl Olson, a regional director of residential and correctional facilities for the state.

Since the program opened 15 months ago, six girls were criminally charged for attacks on staff members. Three were charged for fights with other girls. And repeatedly, police were called to break up fights between girls that threatened to become bigger brawls.

No girls were seriously hurt, but Olson worried that the violence could get worse.

"There was a pattern beginning to evolve that may have resulted in a serious incident," Olson said.

Psychotherapeutic Services took over the halfway house, on the grounds of A.G. Holley Hospital, in fall 2003, replacing a successful program for male offenders run by the state.

The boys program was one of eight required by the legislature to be privatized that year. Though it had a good reputation, the boys halfway house was one of the state's most expensive, at $100 per teen per day.

To cut costs, the state contracted with Psychotherapeutic Services to run a similar girls program for $85 a day.

The company is the second in a year to pull out of a Palm Beach County program for teens.

The publicly traded company Premier Behavioral Solutions lost its contract to run the Florida Institute for Girls in February 2004 after repeated incidents of violence and abuse. Four girls' arms were broken by staff; two more had sex with a staff member.

A grand jury found that staff at the center routinely locked girls in their cells, forcing them to miss school and activities because there weren't enough people on duty to watch them.

The grand jury also criticized the state's Department of Juvenile Justice for not doing enough to stop those abuses. State oversight of its private contractors is now much tougher as a result, department spokesman Tom Denham said.

"We have really gone into a very aggressive monitoring mode for all of our facilities," Denham said. "We no longer take their word for things that we did in the past."

State officials said they were increasingly concerned about reports from the South Florida Halfway House.

Though some calls to police were routine or turned out to be false reports, Lantana officers went to the address more than 70 times in 15 months. Staff turnover reached 100 percent, according to the state, and the program was on its third director.

John Sigler, general counsel for Psychotherapeutic Services, acknowledged that the program probably did have too many incidents, but said that "there are always problems in this type of a program."

The halfway house had a "very, very difficult" time finding qualified staff and had been looking to get out of the contract because it wasn't profitable, Sigler said.

"I think both sides in this agreement underestimated what it was going to take to do the job and do it correctly," Sigler said. "We thought we could make it work, and we were wrong."

Small programs can be more costly than a larger program because they require many of the same staff but can't charge for as many kids. In part for that reason, regional director Olson said, the state does not plan to reopen the program.

The money that went to run the halfway house will likely go to expand another program elsewhere in the state. Of the 12 girls in the program, two are expected to graduate this month. The remaining 10 will be transferred to other programs to complete their sentences.

Other privately run centers in the county have had similar problems and budget troubles.

One company that managed the Palm Beach Youth Center was fired in 2002 after staff were repeatedly cited for poor supervision that allowed teens to escape by digging under a fence.

Another not-for-profit contractor decided in 2004 to close its West Palm Beach program for 20 girls because it was too expensive to run.

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