Johnny Hart, the administrator of a facility in Crestview overseen by Florida's Department of Juvenile Justice, charged with crimes committed at youth detention center in Polk County.
CRESTVIEW — Johnny Hart, the administrator of a facility in Crestview overseen by Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice, has been arrested for crimes committed as an assistant administrator at a youth detention center in Polk County.
Okaloosa County sheriff's deputies arrested Hart on Thursday on charges of child abuse, tampering with evidence and two counts each of using a public record to commit a felony and willful neglect of a juvenile offender.
Two others, including Norma Wynn, the former administrator of Highlands Youth Academy, also have been arrested. The arrests were formally announced Friday at a news conference conducted by Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd.
Judd used the news conference to slam the DJJ. He said the agency had abdicated its oversight obligations and allowed a private company, G4S Youth Services, to run what he termed “an absolute, unequivocal train wreck” of a youth detention center in Polk County.
“It was survival of the fittest,” he said.
Polk County deputies started an investigation into alleged sexual activity between guards and inmates at Highland Youth Academy in November, 2015, Judd said. They turned their attention to Hart when a separate allegation into abuse arose.
Investigators learned that in August 2015 an incident involving Hart started with a 17-year-old “running around the compound after hours.”
The youth had been detained when Hart, whose arrest report lists him at 275 pounds, snatched him from the grasp of the officers who had caught him and slammed him to the ground, the affidavit said. He then “elbowed him two or three times in the head and neck area.”
“He slung a juvenile on the ground and said, ‘you’re going to learn this is my program’ as he pummeled him,” Judd told the media.
The teen suffered injuries to his right shoulder, leg and neck, the report said. He was taken to a hospital for treatment.
Following the incident, Hart told officers who saw the beating not to file an incident report, the affidavit said.
Polk County investigators also accused Hart of failing to take action against youths found with pornographic videos, tobacco and other contraband, and declining to report violations of Youth Academy policies regarding contraband to the Department of Juvenile Justice as required.
The report states Hart “bribed” a resident who had suffered an injury by “being slammed to concrete” by disposing of “documents dictating punitive repercussions for violating rules.” The documents were destroyed to convince the youth not to contact an abuse hotline, the affidavit said.
Hart neglected inmates by failing to report that other Highland Youth Academy staffers were providing them illegal drugs and tobacco. He was also charged with neglect for failing to report resident injuries, including those he had inflicted on the 17-year-old.
At his press conference, Judd said “DJJ did not provide checks and balances and appropriate oversight at Highlands Youth Academy.
“If they had they would have discovered what we discovered,” he said.
Hart had only been employed by the Okaloosa Youth Academy “a couple of weeks” before his arrest, according to Gary Sallee, an attorney representing Youth Opportunity Investments, an Indiana company “recently awarded a contract to manage the facility.”
Okaloosa Youth Academy administrator Willie Livingston did not return phone calls for this story. Okaloosa Youth Academy had been the Okaloosa Youth Development Center until DJJ ordered its closing in June.
Sallee said Youth Opportunity Investments, a “forward thinking leader” in the “treatment of troubled juveniles” had conducted a thorough background check on Hart.
“There was no evidence of any wrongdoing in any of the background checks we did on him,” Sallee said.
“There was no way for us to have known. The Polk County sheriff didn’t tell us or anyone else they were investigating,” he said.
Judd said several times during his news conference that DJJ and G4S Youth Services were well aware of the issues at Highlands Youth Academy, and both had ignored and denied grand jury findings that spoke bluntly of abuses at the facility.
“We didn’t receive the support from DJJ that this deserved,” the sheriff said.
At one point in the news conference Judd said, “I’m not naïve enough to think Highlands Youth Academy is the only (privately managed youth detention facility) run like this in the state of Florida.”
When DJJ closed the Crestview Youth Development Center, DJJ Secretary Christina K. Daly failed to disclose the reasons for doing so. But DJJ did state that the department had warned administrators in May that its contract would be terminated if it did not correct “serious deficiencies that potentially could threaten the health and safety of the youth placed at the program.”
Judd suggested that supervisors should be hired immediately to provide on-the-ground observation and oversight at every privately run DJJ facility in the state. He suggested the oversight staff report directly to the governor, his Cabinet, state legislative leaders and/or federal authorities.
“There are some things you can’t outsource and the responsibility for the care of our youthful inmates is the responsibility of the government,” Judd said.
The sheriff said G4S, which recently sold all of its holdings in America for tens of millions of dollars, “owes the taxpayers of the state of Florida a rebate” and an apology to the “kids” it failed at Highlands Youth Academy.