CRESTVIEW—When Diana Jones drove from Tampa to visit her 17-year-old son at the Okaloosa Youth Development Center, the last thing she expected was to find him with a fractured rib and swollen face.
Jones visited the facility April 2 after receiving a phone call from her son, Dalvon Soares, regarding being physically assaulted by other youths at the center. The center is designed for 13- to 18-year-olds with “moderate to serious mental health disorders and who may have a co-occurring substance-related disorder,” its website states.
Jones said Soares told her he was beaten March 25, 27 and 31. One occasion involved him allegedly being hit in the ribs with a shower pole.
“Nobody called me after any of them,” Jones said. “I spoke to a counselor [after speaking with Soares] and they said don’t have to call for everything. But, I’m his mother and I should be told about when this happens.”
During her visit, Jones requested to see the person in charge of the facility — Program Director Amy Ellis. Jones said she waited three hours to speak with Ellis but was never given the opportunity. She left a message with the staff but said she never received a return phone call.
Staffers told Jones that Ellis has been working to improve the facility.
“I understand she’s trying to clean it up but my child is getting abused,” Jones said. “There’s no excuse for that.”
The News Bulletin attempted to call and email Ellis on April 5, but staffers said she was unavailable and it was “hit or miss” on getting in touch with her. The newspaper left a message but received no response. Ellis forwarded the email to Florida Department of Juvenile Justice Communications Director Heather Digiacomo.
The department “cannot discuss specific youth and their circumstances,” Digiacomo said, adding, “Youth are to have unhindered access to the Florida Child Abuse Hotline” in the event of potential abuse.
The DJJ reviews each incident and determines if further investigation is needed, according to Digiacomo. Facility staffers are required to notify a child’s parent or guardian at that time.
But the center’s staff, Jones said, never notified her of her son’s injuries or altercations.
In a DJJ quality improvement program report published in May 2016 — the last publicly available report — the center was found to be in “limited compliance” in providing an abuse-free environment.
“While the program’s policy states youth will be provided with unimpeded access to call the Florida Abuse Hotline, interviews with staff and additional statements in the program’s policy does not allow for unimpeded access,” the report states.
The purpose of unimpeded hotline access is to ensure that youths can report abuse without fear of retaliation.
Interviews of staff and youths are conducted to ensure such access is granted, according to Digiacomo. However, the questions and responses are confidential.
“When a program has limited compliance on a key critical indicator for the annual compliance review, they must address resolution of that finding immediately through a corrective action plan,” Digiacomo said.
A review of the 2016-17 compliances has yet to be released by the DJJ.
During the four-day review conducted in January 2016, two abuse-related incidents occurred at the center, according to the report. Most of the dozens of residential facilities were without a single incident during their Florida DJJ review.
Gulf Coast Youth Services, a private company, operates the center. The company operates four facilities in Fort Walton Beach, Crestview and DeFuniak Springs.