FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – A federal class-action lawsuit claims a teenage inmate was sexually abused at a youth offender facility where other juveniles were forced to go hungry, endure hot and moldy conditions, and sleep on the floor.
The lawsuit was filed Friday in federal court in Fort Lauderdale by the Southern Poverty Law Center. It alleges that a 15-year-old boy who had been held there for 10 months was sexually abused in a laundry room and at a dental office by an employee at Thompson Academy in Pembroke Pines.
According to the lawsuit, the teen reported the sexual abuse to the facility's administrator and other staff, but nothing was done to remove the employee or prevent him from having contact with the children at Thompson Academy.
The attorneys who filed the lawsuit said the teen tried to kill himself three times by drinking bleach and attempting to hang himself. The boy — who is not being identified because The Associated Press does not name people who may be victims of sexual assault — was released to his mother's care on Friday.
Jesse Williams, senior vice president at Youth Services International, which operates Thompson Academy and 14 other facilities in the U.S., said the lawsuit's claims were unsubstantiated.
"We don't abuse kids," Jesse Williams said. "If the staff abuses kids and we become aware of it, even if it's an allegation, we take immediate steps to protect the kids in our care."
He said the staffer accused of assaulting the teen no longer has contact with youth sent to the company's program and will be fired if found to have harmed any children.
Thompson Academy received a commendable rating after a state inspection by Florida's Department of Juvenile Justice in 2009. Agency spokeswoman Samadhi Jones said the employee accused of the sexual assaults is being investigated by law enforcement.
The Department of Children and Families has up to 60 days to complete an investigation of the facility's procedures, spokesman Mark Riordan said.
Lawyers from the law center said they interviewed about 20 children from Thompson Academy. One youth claimed an employee physically abused him during a restraint. Others said they were forced to go hungry, endure hot and moldy conditions caused by broken air conditioners, and sleep on the floors of other children's rooms.
The teen and other children in the youth corrections program "endured horrific physical and sexual abuse by staff at the facility and were intimidated by staff from reporting the abuses," the lawsuit claims.
The lawsuit seeks damages for the teen.
He was incarcerated at Thompson Academy in December for two assault-related crimes and two property-related crimes, said his lawyer, Chief Assistant Public Defender Gordon Weekes Jr.