“I was wondering, where are the guards? They didn’t have enough staff to handle the chaos,” Ms. Dennis said. “He was actually scared,” she said of her son.
Ms. Dennis said her son ended up at the center after taking her car without permission several times and money from her purse. After talking to the authorities, she was advised that if she “wanted to teach her son a lesson,” he needed to go to a juvenile facility, Ms. Dennis said, a decision she ended up regretting.
The attacks against her son escalated to the point where he begged guards to keep him in solitary confinement, Ms. Dennis said. Released in July 2020, months before his 17th birthday, he now works at a fast-food restaurant and is earning his general equivalency diploma with plans to pursue welding. But he is not the same as he was before his detention, she said. “He has PTSD,” she said. “He hears a noise and he panics.”
Her son’s experience was included in the complaint filed to the Justice Department. In the complaint, he was identified by the initials “M.C.” and described an environment in which “gangs ran the facility” and put out “hits” on children. Food was frequently stolen, he said, and staffing was so limited that officers resorted to the use of pepper spray to pacify groups of children who were fighting.
Sometimes parents were not notified when their children were transported to other facilities. A seasoned volunteer at Gainesville State School who did not want her name used because she was not authorized to speak publicly about an open investigation, said she witnessed instances in which mothers showed up to see their children only to learn they were no longer there. After nine years, she was let go in 2019 after she reported one such case, she said.
In announcing the investigation, Kristen Clarke, who leads the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department, said the federal inquiry would examine the state’s use of isolation and chemicals like pepper spray, plus the allegations of physical violence, sexual abuse and mistreatment of children.
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