Suit: YSI whistleblowers blackballed from Florida teen-detention jobs

When County Commissioner Shelly Vana last year began gathering evidence of abuse and mismanagement at the Palm Beach County Juvenile Correctional Facility, she wasn’t acting alone.

Employees, concerned about the welfare of 118 teenage boys housed in the detention center, provided information that she credited with spurring Youth Services International to walk away from its multi-million-contract with the state to operate the facility. The company later bailed out on its lucrative contracts to operate seven other juvenile lockups around the state.

But two employees now say they paid a hefty price for helping Vana, according to a lawsuit filed Friday in U.S. District Court.

Once the Sarasota-based Youth Services International learned Fredrick Robinson, of Belle Glade, and Jean Roc, of West Palm Beach, were reporting problems at the detention center, near the South Florida Fairgrounds, it suspended them without pay, trumped up allegations against them and ultimately fired them, according to the whistleblowers lawsuit filed by Jupiter attorney Christopher Copeland.

Further, the suit says, by putting false and damaging information in their personnel files, the company effectively “blackballed” Robinson and Roc from getting jobs at any detention center in the state. When a prospective employer runs their names through a state database, the false allegations appear, destroying their chances of getting hired, the suit says.

While both are trained officers, “neither is working in their profession,” Copeland said. “They’re going from job to job and trying to survive.”

They are seeking an unspecified amount in back pay from the company as well as substantial damages for punishing them for exercising their First Amendment rights.

In a statement, the company disputed the claims. “The allegations contained in the litigation have been investigated by several state agencies in the past and all have been found to be without merit, ” it wrote. “YSI vigorously denies all the allegations in the complaint and looks forward to seeing these claims dismissed in court.”

Vana, who was county mayor when she began pushing the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice to cancel YSI’s contract, praised Robinson and Roc for speaking up when it would have been easy to remain silent. Robinson, she said, was key to helping her uncover information that the facility was understaffed, violence was rampant and youths’ basic needs — food, clothing and working toilets — weren’t being met.

“If it wasn’t for Fred, we would have never gotten YSI out of there,” she said. “He is the bravest person I have ever met.”

While she didn’t know Roc as well, she said he also provided important information at great personal risk.

“It’s awful,” she said of their predicaments. “For someone like Fred, who stands up and says this is wrong, he should be able to find a job. He just wanted the kids to be OK.”

Vana’s discoveries and other evidence, including records of fights that sent youths to the hospital for treatment, were mounting when the company in August announced it would bow out of its contract. Faced with criticism about the company’s operations elsewhere in Florida, state and federal lawmakers also began pressuring juvenile justice officials to cancel its seven other contracts.

In March, DJJ announced the company was walking away. Insisting they had done nothing wrong, YSI officials said the action was taken to settle a long-running Leon County lawsuit filed by a former YSI worker, who claimed it faked documents to keep its multi-million-dollar contracts and failed to provide services to juveniles in its care.

The detention center YSI operated in Palm Beach County has been renamed the Palm Beach Youth Academy. It is operated by Sequel TSI of Florida , a Huntsville, Ala., company co-founded by John “Jay” Ripley. He was a founder of YSI and served as its president, chief operating officer and chief financial officer, according to the company website.

On a recent visit, Vana said she was pleasantly surprised. “It’s totally different. It’s so much better,” she said. “They actually care about the kids.”

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