‘One giant, big failure:’ Volusia sheriff slams state agencies after runaways shoot at deputies

News 6 investigators review DCJ, DJJ budgets

With more than 30 years of law enforcement experience under his utility belt, Sheriff Mike Chitwood thought he had seen it all. Then Tuesday night, a 12-year-old boy and 14-year old girl, runaways from a group home, fired an AR-15 and shotgun at deputies when the kids were caught burglarizing and vandalizing a home.
With more than 30 years of law enforcement experience under his utility belt, Sheriff Mike Chitwood thought he had seen it all. Then Tuesday night, a 12-year-old boy and 14-year old girl, runaways from a group home, fired an AR-15 and shotgun at deputies when the kids were caught burglarizing and vandalizing a home.

PORT ORANGE, Fla. – With more than 30 years of law enforcement experience under his utility belt, Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood thought he had seen it all.

Then Tuesday night, a 12-year-old boy and 14-year old girl, runaways from a group home, fired an AR-15 and a shotgun at deputies when the children were caught burglarizing and vandalizing a home.

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“The Department of Juvenile Justice failing to do its job. DCF is failing to do its job and everybody is pointing the finger at one another,” Chitwood told News 6.

Chitwood believes the shooting could have been prevented if state agencies tasked with taking care of troubled children had done more. He named the Department of Juvenile Justice and the Department of Children and Families.

“In Florida, we do not put kids behind bars,” Chitwood said. “We do restorative justice. Well you saw restorative justice in action (Tuesday) night.”

Records show the juveniles have troubled pasts.

The Volusia County Sheriff’s Office released body camera video on Wednesday showing a sergeant hiding behind a tree as two juvenile suspects fired at him with a pistol, a shotgun and an AK-47, according to the sheriff.
The Volusia County Sheriff’s Office released body camera video on Wednesday showing a sergeant hiding behind a tree as two juvenile suspects fired at him with a pistol, a shotgun and an AK-47, according to the sheriff.

Reports from 2016 show the boy was Baker acted three times in 10 days when he was 7 years old after deputies and DCF were contacted by his foster family and his school.

The 14-year-old girl was previously arrested after deputies said she stole a dog and lit her halfway home on fire. On Tuesday, deputies were forced to shoot the girl to end the altercation. She remains in critical but stable condition.

Volusia deputies said both children were living at the Florida United Methodist Children’s Home when they ran away. Chitwood said the group home is not equipped to deal with violent offenders or mentally ill children.

“That home, if you remember correctly, a month ago one of their staff was killed by a 15-year-old who did not like the rules,” Chitwood said. “That 15-year-old did not belong at FUMCH. He had a violent criminal history.

“But DJJ in their infinite wisdom said, ‘Oh, we do not want to put anyone in protective custody.’ DJJ pushed (the 15-year-old boy) out. DCF pushed him out. How many other kids are out there like this in the state of Florida?”

FUMCH decided to suspend its emergency shelter care program indefinitely as a result of the shooting.

DCF did not return a request for comment regarding the specific allegations made by Chitwood. In a previous statement however, a DCF spokesperson said, in part, “Placement assessments for children in Florida’s foster care system are determined by the community-based organizations based on the child’s needs and placement availability.”

In a statement, a spokesperson with DJJ said, in part, “The events that unfolded in Volusia County are tragic, and the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) is thankful that there were no casualties as a result of this incident. To clarify, the Florida United Methodist Children’s Home is not a DJJ program.”

For Chitwood, however, the problem does not start with the group homes, but with state-run agencies.

“Law enforcement is left to pick up the pieces,” Chitwood said.

According to the most recent budget signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis earlier this week, DCF’s budget grew by more than $400 million for this upcoming fiscal year.

DJJ’s budget stayed roughly the same, but News 6 found more than $23 million was taken out of DJJ’s Residential Corrections Program and reallocated for things like delinquency prevention and diversion programs.

The Residential Corrections Program is supposed to house and help rehabilitate children who are in the custody of juvenile justice.

“I can request anything I want,” said Chitwood, when asked if he would request an investigation into DCF and DJJ. “At the end of the day, that has to come from the state. Everybody knows what the problem is.”

Read the full statement from DJJ:

“The events that unfolded in Volusia County are tragic, and the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) is thankful that there were no casualties as a result of this incident. To clarify, the Florida United Methodist Children’s Home is not a DJJ program. As an agency, we serve alongside the various partners that make up Florida’s juvenile justice system, including law enforcement, the courts, state attorneys, and community providers to hold youth accountable for their actions. DJJ does not tolerate violence that jeopardizes the public safety of our communities.”

Read the full statement from DCF:

“The reports from the events that transpired last night in Volusia County are deeply disturbing. The Department is thankful that no lives were lost and those responding to this incident are safe. Any violence against law enforcement and any actions that threaten public safety will not be tolerated.

“Placement assessments for children in Florida’s foster care system are determined by the community-based organizations based on the child’s needs and placement availability.

“The Department will continue coordinating with state and community agencies to ensure that the appropriate services are in place for the youth involved in this incident.

“DCF stands ready to coordinate with the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office to hold those involved accountable.”

Read the full statement from FUMCH:

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About the Author:

Award-winning investigative reporter Merris Badcock joined the News 6 team in October 2020. Merris is the recipient of a Regional Edward R. Murrow Award, a Suncoast Regional Emmy Award, four Suncoast Emmy Regional nominations, and two first-place Florida Association of Broadcast Journalists’ Awards.