VOLUSIA COUNTY, Fla. – Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood’s answer to fixing a major problem in his county—taking care of teens in trouble and keeping them off a path to prison—is a long-needed Juvenile Assessment Center.
It will be a place for deputies and parents to take kids when they first get in trouble to get them the right help to break the cycle.
When Volusia County deputies were pinned down by a 12- and 14-year-old last June, firing at deputies with a rifle and shotgun after they’d escaped from a foster home, Chitwood decided it was time for a change.
“That was the last straw,” Chitwood said. “That was enough of me bitching, pounding my fist on the table saying, ‘Something has to change, something has to change.’ It was ‘Now I have to make a change.’”
This is the change: Using federal funds and donated furniture, the sheriff’s office is in the process of renovating a former detox center on the Daytona Beach campus of SMA Behavioral Health Services, turning it into a one-stop shop for teens in trouble.
Chitwood took News 6 inside the building for a tour.
Volusia County’s future Juvenile Assessment Center (JAC) will be modeled after Seminole County’s successful JAC, according to Chitwood.
“A kid will be assessed head-to-toe for mental issues as well as substance issues,” Chitwood said. “Last year, there were 1,000 kids processed by the Department of Juvenile Justice (just in Volusia County alone.) Not one of them received any type of mental health screening or drug screening. Now with this assessment center, every kid, whether it’s a runaway, curfew violation, truant, arrested for stealing a candy bar or robbery, they will come here and be assessed, head-to-toe.”
Chitwood said right now the juvenile justice system in Volusia County is a “hodgepodge.”
“And I think you have to look back at what happened last June. A 14-year-old and 12-year-old opened fire. You have kids that are truly violent being placed in homes that cannot handle violent kids. You’re looking at kids getting Baker Acted 14 times. How does that happen?”
Rhonda Harvey, chief operating officer of SMA, said counselors and social workers even from the school district, all in one place, will try to understand the source of the child’s problems, and address it instead of just sending the juvenile to jail.
“Of course we would work together and try to fill in the gaps—there are gaps—it’s set up right now in a very fractured state,” Harvey said. “Upon the first contact with law enforcement, or say truancy from school or something of that nature, our goal is to funnel all of the children and families through the new center so we can ascertain what they might be needing and try to do some intervention before they get involved into the deeper system of criminal activity.”
Chitwood said once the JAC opens, there’s no reason any child should fall through the cracks.
“I think there’s going to be a lot of parents and a lot of young people whose lives are better for what we’re doing here,” Chitwood said.
Volusia County has tried this before, running its own JAC a couple of decades ago, long before Sheriff Chitwood took over. Chitwood said it ran out of money and was not supported by the sheriff’s office.
Chitwood promised this time will be different, with plenty of federal money to renovate and plenty of support and security from the sheriff’s office.
The Volusia County JAC is expected to open Oct. 1.