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Secretary's Message

January 3, 2014

Secretary Walters’ Weekly Letter

I am so proud to share every week the great work occurring here at the Department of Juvenile Justice, and I hope you will take a moment to read the stories about the accomplishments of our colleagues, both DJJ employees and those who work for our contractors, and the youth in our care. I am always looking for opportunities to showcase the work you do – on and off the clock – to enrich your communities. I know there is even more going on than what I report here, so I would like to encourage each of you to keep the weekly letter in mind and remember to share your good news. It’s easy – email news@djj.state.fl.us or call (850) 921–5900 by Thursday at noon (submissions after that time will be considered for the next week’s letter).


Wansley Walters

Over the last year, I have shared with you all many great stories about therapy dogs Justice and Oliver who are stationed at the Miami Dade RJDC and Southwest RJDC respectively. I could lay out more endless statistics to show you what you already know: canine therapy works in juvenile facilities. And, the phenomenon is growing outside of our walls. During the halftime festivities of Wednesday’s TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, high school bands from across the country stood on the soggy grass at Everbank Field in Jacksonville to honor Afghanistan war veterans and their therapy dogs presented by the Wounded Warrior project. It seems that therapy dogs are a new tool used by doctors for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD in soldiers returning home from combat. 

While we do not consider our RJDCs to be a combat zone, PTSD is a very real condition that affects more than just soldiers; some of the youth in our facilities are struggling to overcome it. It is with that in mind that I share with you this letter sent to South Region director Dr. Gladys Negron from Acting Assistant Superintendent of the Southwest RJDC Mary Pagano. Mary describes the very traumatic experiences of one of the girls in her care, and how Oliver was able to help her cope through a difficult time. It reads: 

Dr. Negron

 I would like to take a minute and share a story about one of our youth and our canine companion “Oliver” and his therapeutic effects he had on one of our youth. 

This young girl came to us and an abuse call had to be made for the allegations that she was whipped with an extension cord. We are familiar with this young girl as she has been with us on several occasions. She has a history of battery on family members and staff and is full of anger and has mental health issues. She also has a history of being very stubborn and sitting on the floor and not moving when she gets frustrated. She has suffered many traumatic events in her life. Could you imagine being whipped with a cord?

This girl was interviewed by DCF for the allegations and was very upset.  She was clearly hurting inside   and so angry and frustrated that she sat on the floor and would not speak to anyone and refused to move. After several minutes of coaxing her to get up off of the floor and talk to us, to no avail. We brought Oliver in and allowed him to work his magic. 

Oliver went in like a champ and walked right up and sat down facing her eye to eye. He sat there, tilting his head to the left and right waiting for the moment that she noticed he was there for her.  We immediately could see the calming effect he had on her. This young girl slowly reached out and starting petting Oliver. After several minutes she reached out and put her arms around Oliver’s neck. Oliver, the champ that he is did the most amazing thing and also reached out and put his long neck and head around her shoulders in an attempt to give her a” doggie hug” back.  She was hugging and petting Oliver when all of a sudden she began sobbing and let out a long haunting wail, that sounded as if all of the hurt that she has held in her heart came pouring out at once. It was hard to hear and see a child sob and in that much emotional pain. She hugged the dog until she could not cry anymore. Oliver never left her side; he sat with her and hugged her back.  When she stopped crying Oliver took his paw and lifted it up so they could hold hands. It was amazing and it seemed as though in those moments of hurt and sorrow this little girl made a connection with Oliver. Oliver laid down and put his head in her lap where she sat petting him, rocking back and forth while she worked through her pain. 

We use Oliver on a daily basis with this girl.  Her behavior has improved 100 times over and as a reward we allow her 10 minutes after school to groom, and brush him. After dinner she is allowed 10 minutes to throw the ball down the hall with him.  Before bed we allow her time with Oliver to help calm her and prepare her to go to her room for a restful night of sleep. It is amazing to watch this girl comply with staff and our daily routine just so she can spend time with our Canine Companion. This little girl now smiles from ear to ear on a daily basis when she sees Oliver. She knows he is there for her! 

Let’s face it, it is every kids dream is to have a dog. Oliver loves his house here at SWRJDC, he has a big family here and he is very loved. He has taught all of us a little bit about ourselves. The kids adore him and call him by name when they see him. He loves to run and play with the kids outside on the recreation field, and our kids run and play back with him. He calms our kids and makes them laugh out loud. Do you know how good it is to hear kids laugh in a secure environment? It’s therapeutic for the kids and the staff. For some of our kids it is the first time they have gotten the unconditional love and attention. Oliver is teaching them how to love and be loved back.  I believe mentally that our kids can take themselves out of a secure environment, if only for a brief moment in time and be in a normal loving environment. Everyone is smiling when Oliver is around; this lifts our kids’ spirits and encourages positive behavior in them. 

We are so lucky to have been chosen part of this program. It would be my hope that all the facilities in the state will be able to have opportunity to utilize a canine companion for their kids.  This is easily and win - win situation for everyone involved.

Thank you for listening! 

Mary Pagano - Acting Assistant Superintendent


Legislative Update

Next week marks the first legislative committee week of 2014, and, with session less than two months away, now is the time for our legislative affairs team begins to ramp up their schedule. Next Thursday, Legislative Affairs Director Jon Menendez, Assistant Director Marcus Smith, and Director of Education Julie Orange will be at the Capitol in the House Sub-committee on Choice and Innovation to discuss HB 173 which overhauls the Juvenile Justice Education programs. This is one of our agency’s priority bills and we are working hard to move it through the next steps of the legislative process. 

Detention Update

Last Tuesday, St. Lucie RJDC celebrated Christmas Eve with members from the Circuit 19 Public Defender’s Office and various volunteers during their second annual holiday pizza party. This new found tradition was organized by Juvenile Detention Supervisor Michelle McMurtry. The youth at St. Lucie sang Christmas carols and received gifts and treats from the organizations in attendance. Among the volunteers who helped get this event off the ground were attorneys Ginger Miranda and Matt Vasko, as well as Sara Feldman, Wendy Dwyer and Phil Harwick who played the role of Santa. I would also like to thank Prevention Specialist Paula Friedrich for helping with the coordination of the event. 

During a recent visitation, Captain Cordell Nelson and the staff at Hillsborough RJDC conducted a raffle drawing to give away Christmas meals to several families of the youth in our care. The holiday season can be a difficult one and the staff of Hillsborough felt obliged to spread some much needed holiday cheer. 

Seen above are a few more pictures from the Escambia Regional Detention Center highlighting the trauma informed changes to the interior doors of the facility. These murals were painted by several of the girls in our care. 

Youth at the Okaloosa RJDC decided to get festive over the holiday season by decorating a few doors around the facility. 

Youth at Brevard RJDC spent some of their free time creating holiday arts and crafts. 

Probation Update

On December 14, probation staff from Circuit 8 held an Employability Improvement Techniques Workshop for seven of the youth in their care. The workshop was hosted by former DJJ employee Regla Exavier. SJPO Todd Pollex and JPO Ashley Baird assisted with conducting mock interviews during the workshop. The youth received training on how to dress appropriately for interviews, how to properly prepare before an interview, some basic tips on creating a resume including using an appropriate personal e-mail address on a resume and how to properly follow-up following a job interview. At the end, the youths in attendance went through a mock interview and received feedback on their performance and how they could improve for the future.

SJPO Betty Preble was named Circuit 19 “2013 Employee of the Year” for her efforts in meeting the needs of the youth in her care and their families. Betty reached out to her church congregation to collect donated gifts and funds that helped five needy families during the holiday season, and delivered these items to the families on December 21. Congratulations Betty on this distinguished recognition and for your willingness to help those less fortunate during the holiday season. 

During the month of December, probation staff from Circuit 19 held a door decorating contest for the holiday season. Fifteen participants submitted photos of their decorated doors and each staff member had an opportunity to vote on the winning design. JPOS Ann Marie Campbell won the contest and took home a gift card to a local restaurant. 

SJPO Todd Pollex and JPOs Phillip Minafield, Richard Stone, Brandon Harris, Tuwuana Rossin and Ashley Baird from Circuit 8 assisted a family over the holidays. The family did not have a bed for the youth  to sleep in after he was released from a commitment program, so these officers found donated bed and it to the boy’s home.  

Reform Specialist Lut Clarcq from Circuit 20 created a DJJ closet for youths in need recently at the Joseph D’Alessandro Circuit Office in Ft. Myers to serve area youth and their families who are in need of clothes. Donations were accepted from law enforcement agencies, service providers and probation staff. This closet will be a continued effort from the probation staff in Circuit 20 to provide clothing and other basic necessities for the youth and families they serve. 

Prevention Update

Special Projects Administrator Eugene Morris donated Christmas candy while visiting the staff and residents of the Miracle Hill Nursing and Rehabilitation Center last Saturday in Tallahassee. In order to spread holiday cheer to some of Leon County’s senior citizens and to deliver New Year’s greetings to staff and residents, Eugene visited Miracle Hill, a Tallahassee nursing home facility, which has “a philosophy of quality service with a commitment to excellence.”

Delinquency Prevention Specialist Tina Levene, her husband Warren and their son Victor provided food and Christmas party games for homeless youth at the Tampa Teen Center. To share love during the holidays and to remind the young people that somebody cares, Tina and her family, in conjunction with Camelot Community Care (for whom Tina and Warren have served as Licensed Therapeutic Foster Parents for one and a half years),enabled the youth to play games, eat a nice Christmas dinner, and receive gifts (including more than $10,000 in clothes donated from Urban Clothing). This was an incredible outpouring of caring and sharing about others.  

Residential Update

Students from the Big Cypress Wilderness Institute, a moderate-risk program for males (ages 14-18) operated by AMIKids, Inc., took part in the National Audubon Society’s Annual Christmas Bird Count on Dec. 19.  The boys joined other volunteers at the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge on Highway 29 to walk the trails and try to point out every single bird that was seen, so that each was identified and catalogued, using the Audubon’s approved methods that include binoculars, bird guides and checklists.

The Audubon’s Annual Christmas Count takes place every year over several weeks around Christmas and provides ornithologists with a “snapshot” statistic to gauge the numbers and diversity of bird populations internationally.  Beginning in 1900, just 27 volunteers in 25 locations provided data for that year. Now, more than 60,000 individuals take part in the Audubon’s Annual Christmas Count more than 2,000 locations.

The Big Cypress students not only enjoyed an educational nature walk during which they counted many birds—they also identified deer and bobcat tracks, as well as bear scat, and they saw a live red rat snake—but they also helped to further a valuable scientific exercise that has become a great tradition.  

Also in December, the elves at Big Cypress worked in Santa’s Secret Swamp Bike Shop getting bikes ready for all of the good boys and girls from Everglades City.  The young men assembled and repaired 25 bikes. The bikes were donated by Wal-Mart to the Bikes for Tykes program, in which Big Cypress participates. The students made repairs and checked each bike to ensure that the brakes worked and that each was safe and ready to ride.

The students love working on the bikes and they are proud to be able to give to the community.