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    Judge lectures agency on detaining children

    By ALICIA CALDWELL, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published May 3, 2002

    LARGO -- He was a wisp of a boy. Even the judge was surprised when he said he was 14. He wore handcuffs, and a body chain. An escape risk, authorities said.

    "How long have you been in the JDC?" Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Frank Quesada asked the boy, referring to the county juvenile detention center, which is essentially kid jail.

    "Eight months," he said in a barely audible voice.

    The judge closed his eyes briefly, concern washing over his face.

    Before the hearing was over Thursday afternoon, Quesada told the state Department of Children and Families it has until Monday to place four Pinellas children in treatment programs or he would hold the department in contempt of court.

    The children -- one girl, three boys -- were all facing felony charges. But as their cases had proceeded, they had been found to be mentally incompetent. In response, local judges had ordered they be placed in mental health treatment programs -- not jail.

    Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger contended they should have been moved from juvenile detention within days. However, all had been committed to DCF custody weeks ago -- some having been in juvenile detention for months all told -- victims of what DCF says is a state budget too paltry to take care of them.

    "It's abominable," Dillinger said after the hearing. "If we don't make an issue of it, it won't get done."

    Quesada's order was the latest episode in what has been an abysmal week for the state's enormous social service agency charged with ensuring the welfare of the state's children. Earlier this week, the department admitted it lost track of a 5-year-old Miami girl. And it faced scrutiny from a state legislative committee concerned about the agency's performance.

    In the case of the 14-year-old who stood before Quesada, the Largo boy had gotten in trouble at his public school, which specializes in treating children with emotional and learning disabilities. His mother said he had stepped on flowers at the school, and had fought school personnel trying to restrain him. In a separate incident, he had helped a cousin steal pocketbooks and had faced charges for that.

    The boy, who had been deemed incompetent, was to have been transferred to a treatment program shortly after March 14, pursuant to a judge's order. But he and three other Pinellas children cannot be placed because the state's 48 beds for such cases already are filled, said Keith Ganobsik, a DCF lawyer.

    The public defender said that DCF ought to find money to perform its legal obligations to the children.

    But Ganobsik told the judge the department has $2.2-million to treat these sorts of cases through the end of June. The beds are full, and there is a waiting list, he said. Furthermore, he said it wasn't the courts' job to interfere with the system the department had set up.

    "It's not the judiciary's role to tell us how to spend this money," Ganobsik said. "It's our job. It may not be a perfect system, but it's logical and balanced."

    Quesada refused to accept that explanation.

    "I don't see where the lack of funds and facilities is a defense for the department not exercising its responsibility to these children," Quesada said. "I have a huge problem with mentally ill children in leg irons in a juvenile detention facility."

    The court arranged a hearing for Monday morning to determine whether DCF had found slots for the children. After Thursday's hearing, Ganobsik refused to comment on what the department planned to do, referring questions to department representatives, who also declined to elaborate.

    Shawnna Donovan, a regional spokeswoman for DCF, said state confidentiality laws prohibited her from speaking about the case.

    In court, DCF administrators had said they didn't know when the Pinellas children would move off the waiting list and out of juvenile detention -- a statement that left a public defender incredulous.

    "It's unbelievable they can stand here in front of you and say they don't know when they are going to move (the children)," said Robert Gardner, an assistant public defender who argued the case. "It's time for them to stop whining about this and do their jobs."

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