Sunday, June 10, 2007

Where to report abuse in Florida DJJ programs?

According to, DJJ Secretary Walt McNeil urges anyone knowing of abuse in DJJ programs to report it to him. You can reach him on his cell phone at (850) 210-3815 or via e-mail

DOVE Vocational Academy - mother's complaints

DOVE Vocational Academy
5270 Ezell Road
Graceville, Florida 32440
Phone: (850) 263-7550 · Fax: (850) 263-2824 · E-Mail:

"The DOVE Vocational Academy is a 48-bed moderate risk residential program for girls ages 15-18 years who are in need of vocational skills." -DJJ website

Well, folks... here they are. Pics of DOVE Academy. As you can see, there is nothing more to this facility. The portables, immediately surrounded by the chain link, form the exterior perimeter of the compound. As you can see, in image 31, I managed to get the near and far fences in the photo. That shot is the LENGTH of the compound. The width is a little less than half that distance. The "courtyard" is almost visible in one of the shots. I am sure you can use your imagination to guess what THAT looks like. For those of you in the DJJ... I have to wonder if you REALLY believe that confining a kid to one of THESE buildings on THIS property is rehabilitative OR therapeutic in any way? That is NOT a rhetorical question. If you think you can help me make sense of all this... the door is open... step on in. ~Suléma.

05/29/07 Email to Friends & Family

I wanted to take the time to update you all on Marena's status. Her sister and I were able to visit her this past Sunday. We tried to keep our spirits up and remain optimistic on the 2+ hour drive to the DOVE facility. When we arrived on the isolated country road that MapQuest told us was our destination, we had a difficult time finding the facility. We drove past it three times before stopping at the boy's facility that we were able to identify by the signs at the entrance of the parking lot. From there, we were directed to a dusty lot on their property. This was not the building so proudly and prominently displayed on the DJJ's website. This was much worse than anything I had imagined. On a dusty lot, roughly one-fourth the size of a football field was a rectangular chain link fence. Immediately within the confines of the perimeter this fence sat a cluster of old, mildewed portable buildings, completely unidentifiable if not for the plastic banner, haging on the fence, identifying this "facility" as the DOVE "academy".

Sierra and I went into the only accessible building through the only gate in the fence. There we discovered that Sierra's name had not been added to the visitation list for Marena. Almost two weeks ago, I was told to expect a "welcome packet" from the facility that would include a form I could fill out and list Marena's visitors. I explained to the ladies on duty that despite having been promised this packet, I had still not received it. I had, however, for fear something such as this might happen, e-mailed Ms. Smithwick, the director, with a list of acceptable visitors/correspondents.

After a few phone calls, and more than a little frustration, Sierra was allowed to accompany me to Marena's trailer. As we left the main trailer, where we were required to leave all of our belongings, and stepped into the facility's "courtyard", I thought I would be sick. I found myself standing in the middle of those trailers, looking at nothing but a dusty, dirt lot, smaller than my own backyard (a FLORIDA-sized backyard) with a single basketball net and a picnic table. I walked to Marena's trailer, determined not to let her see how troubled I was. The door was opened by a very nice woman, and behind her stood my beautiful, baby girl. She immediately fell into my arms and began weeping. I could no longer hold back the tears, and we stood together, hugging one another tightly, until I could stand the tears no more. Sierra hugged her sister, and there were more tears. I resolved not to dwell on our surroundings and do what I could to bring some happiness to my first-born child, if only briefly.

Sierra and I sat with Marena in the outer room of her trailer, where only one of the other six girls had visitors. She looked so drawn and tired... and somehow older. I handed her the Coke and candy bar I was allowed to bring in to her, and she began to cry again. We spent time laughing. We spent time crying. Most importanly, we spent time sharing with one another what was going on here at home and there in this "academy". I updated Marena on everything you have all been sharing with me, and I told her about all of you and what you are trying to do for her. She was very touched and wanted me to thank you all. I told her about the appeals process and things that I have learned that SHOULD work in her favor. It was difficult to walk that line... between giving her hope and setting her up for disappointment. I told her that I would NEVER give up, no matter how dismal things looked.

I asked Marena questions about the "academy". Apparently, the building pictured on the website is still more than THREE MONTHS from completion. I realized just how right so many of you are... they were in such a hurry to warehouse these girls that they set up this disgusting, makeshift camp more than a year before the actual facility would be completed. There are girls who have entered and completed their nine to 15 month stay at DOVE... all in these dismal surroundings.

Marena's days consist of waking, eating, and going to "school" (NOT taking anything accredited, from what I understand). When she is not at "School" or eating, she is confined to her trailer with her five other roommates. These roommates, I have learned, are in this facility for assault with a deadly weapon, assault and battery with a baseball bat, and fleeing the state while on probation, to name a few. I learned that some of these girls were sent to this facility as a last resort, after they had not responded favorably to one or more other programs. I also discovered that for truancy to be a VOP [violation of probation], there must be THREE truancies. Marena had only one. Furthermore, girls in the facility who had dirty UAs [urine analysis] had, by their own admission, multiple dirty UAs.

Marena is staying busy by reading and writing to her family. When she wrote a letter to me last week expressing some of the fears (some justified, some slightly paranoid because they are amplified by the over-abundace of time to do nothing but think), that letter was confiscated. She was told that she should not worry her mother by sending letters of that nature. As punishment, for I can think of no other reason to do this, the letters she had written to her brother and sister were also confiscated. In her letter, Marena had expressed fear that her grandfather, suffering from advanced prostate cancer, would die before she could see him again. She expressed a fear of any and all things that could happen, to her or those she loved, while at DOVE. She expressed anxiety that she might get cervical cancer... perhaps an over-reaction, but she had, afterall watched her mother deal with cervical cancer less than four years ago. This is not a new fear. She and I have discussed this, at length, in the past, and we SHOULD have been able to discuss it again, even IF through correspondence. That right, as a mother, to soothe the fears of my own child, appears to have been stripped from me.

They do not have television, even to watch the evening news, so, she is unable to keep up with current events. They DO, however, get to watch two movies during the weekend. They get absolutely ZERO physical recreation, and Marena told me how many of the girls gain more than ten and twenty pounds while there. I gave her some pointers on how to exercise in a confined space.

In an effort to remain positive, I asked Marena if she had decided which "vocation" she was going to study. "Cooking, I suppose. Not that culinary arts interest me anymore, but I will at least have to do something."

Curious, I asked what the girls who chose "landscaping" did. She pointed to the little 10' by 12' patch of brown grass in the "courtyard". "They did that."

Marena told me she would prefer to be in prison than in this dusty hole, and I secretly agreed. In prison she would have commissary priveleges. She could have any visitor she chose... correspond with whomever she wished... exercise on a fairly regular basis.

I also learned why there had been such a rush to get her into a facility. If she had made it her 18th birthday, then just three weeks away, they would not have been able to take her into a program. I would be an IDIOT if I did not think that the reason she was placed in this facility was because they were afraid it would be the only one available prior to her 18th brithday.

The three hours with Marena passed all too quickly. I watched the hands on the clock tick our last four minutes away. "I know that you can do this if you have to, Marena. You are stronger than you realize," I said, thinking secretly to myself... HOW can she do this? How could someone live like this and actually come out a better person? I cannot believe it is possible. Ironically, perhaps a child that comes from such dismal surroundings that this is nothing new would have a less difficult time adjusting. A child with little to no hope of a productive, or at least non-violent life COULD benefit from this program. I fear, it would have the opposite effect on someone like Marena. A former honor roll student, with dreams of and the ability to go to college both intellectually as well as financially (thanks to the trust fund established by her grandparents) who has never harmed another person, would hardly seem the ideal candidate for a program such as this. If the self-proclaimed goal of the Florida DJJ is to transition juvenile delinquents to responsbile adults, then they may want to revisit the fact that taking hope away from these girls is not the way to do it. These are, afterall, according to the DJJ, NOT criminals to be locked up and punished, but children to be rehabilitated and taught hope and civil decency.

Of course we all cried again. "I won't give up on you, Marena, or on trying to get you out of here."

"I know, Mom," Marena said. "Write. Please write. Tell my story. Tell everybody. They will listen. They HAVE to."

As I sat in the parked car, staring ahead, not seeing anything but the prism of my own tears and the face of my beautiful daughter, I felt a revulsion and disgust like none I had ever known before. I was overwhelmed by frustration and anger... and a sense of helplessness. Despite the number of people who know that Marena's confinement is an injustice... despite the fact that Judge Goodman, representing the DJJ, has defied the very covenants she swore to uphold, despite the fact that Marena is a non-violent offender with only three, petty violations of probation, Marena would be staying here, in this filthy place, and I helpless to do anything about it because a single woman has been given an over abundance of power to abuse at her will. I looked at Sierra. Her face was angry, tear-streaked "Let's get out of this place," she growled. Our ride home was quiet and contemplative. All the hope from the previous ride shattered and torn.

As I peruse the DJJ's website, I am amused, almost to point of malicious laughter, by the photos depicting some of the supposed facilities in the State of Florida. They show children in clean, modern classrooms, clean, comfortable facilities, serene settings. In my next correspondence, I will be including photos of what Florida State facilities REALLY look like. Before Sierra and I left Marena Sunday, we took pictures and made notes... not that we would soon forget the despair we had seen. ~Suléma