Jail Staffers Ignored Dying Teen, Report Says by Kelli Kennedy

Posted: November 1, 2012 in News and politics

A dying teen lay vomiting and moaning on a mat after he was dropped on his head, yet staffers at a South Florida juvenile detention facility failed to get him medical attention, according to investigative report released Friday.

The report comes nearly a year-and-a-half after surveillance video showed staffers at the Palm Beach Regional Juvenile Detention Center horsing around with youths while searching them in the cafeteria last July. As the staff picked them up, swung them around and tossed them to the floor, most landed on their feet. But the video shows a staffer picking up 18-year-old Eric Perez, lifting him so his feet were above his head and then dropping him on his head, according to a report by the Department of Juvenile Justice inspector general.

The report says Perez landed on the floor with his back against the wall.

For hours, Perez moaned and begged for help while vomiting in his cell at a West Palm Beach detention facility last July. The staff decided not to call 911 but instead called a supervisor, who told them to call a nurse. The nurse was off duty and didn’t respond. By the time staffers did call 911, Perez was dead, according to the report.

Nine staffers were ultimately fired after his death. Earlier this year a scathing grand jury report said staffers ignored the teen’s obvious need for medical help, but no charges were filed. Perez turned 18 shortly before his death, ruling out child neglect charges. Grand jurors said they couldn’t find any laws under which to charge the staff, but warned Perez’s care was “fundamentally and woefully inadequate.”

A medical examiner determined that Perez died from a cerebral hemorrhage, but said there were no external injuries to suggest whether the hemorrhage was linked to being dropped.

Perez had been locked up because of a marijuana possession charge. A judge ordered the teen to stay at the facility while agency officials figured out what to do with him, but he had not been adjudicated.

Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Wansley Walters said Friday that she was disappointed the report took so long, but said officials were obligated to work with law enforcement and others during the process.

“I think about Eric every day. I still see his face every day. His death continues to be a very painful memory for this agency,” Walters said in a written statement.

About six hours after Perez was injured, staffers said he was acting crazy in his cell, yelling “Get off me,” even though it appeared no one was on him. One staffer said he thought Perez was faking being sick because he wanted to go to the hospital, where he allegedly heard it was easier to escape, according to the report.

Some staffers said they thought Perez had eaten paint chips and was high.

Staff moved the teen out of his cell and onto a mat on the floor of another room to keep an eye on him. Perez began throwing up, screaming “it hurts” and had trouble standing. Instead of calling 911, staffers decided to let him sleep it off. They dragged the mat where Perez lay into another room, the report stated. Staffers said they didn’t want to lift him because they were afraid of dropping him. Perez just lay in a fetal position and moaned, according to investigators.

Two staffers called their superintendent and described the situation. The superintendent told them to call the nurse, but the nurse didn’t respond to two voicemails and it appears the messages did not refer to the situation as an emergency, the report said.

Investigators said the supervisor failed by not telling his staff to call 911 and said another nurse, who arrived in the morning, should have immediately checked on Perez. She heard Perez snoring and decided to pass out medications to other youths before returning to assess him more thoroughly, according to the report. At that point, an alert about Perez’s condition was announced over the intercom. Staff and later paramedics tried to resuscitate him using CPR.

“We have taken definitive and decisive steps since last year to ensure that all the youth in our care promptly receive the professional and humane treatment they deserve,” Walters said.

An email to a lawyer for Perez’ mother was not immediately returned Friday. The family is suing over the teen’s death.

Following his death, agency officials said they made several changes including retraining staff on when to call 911 and changing the phone system so youths can make free calls to legal counsel, probation officers and the state abuse hotline.

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