'Runaway foster children broke into home, found guns and fired at deputies'

By The Washington Post Time of article published Jun 3, 2021

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Hannah Knowles, Meryl Kornfield

A 14-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy in Florida face attempted murder charges after breaking into a home on Tuesday and using the guns inside to fire on sheriff's deputies, authorities said, in a violent and drawn-out confrontation that the children's foster home called "the result of the system failing our children."

Deputies and the boy were not shot, the Volusia County Sheriff's Office said. The girl was taken to a hospital with life-threatening injuries and is now stable. Both children were runaways from Florida United Methodist Children's Home in Enterprise, Florida, according to authorities, who said they tried their best to de-escalate a situation that could have turned deadly.

"Don't make me do this," one deputy says to himself on sometimes dark and chaotic footage released Wednesday, worrying aloud that the children will emerge and force him to engage.

They shot repeatedly toward deputies on four occasions over a span of 35 minutes, the sheriff's office said, before the girl finally emerged from a garage, pointed the shotgun at deputies and led them to return fire. The boy, armed with an AK-47, then surrendered, authorities said.

The boy reportedly told authorities that the girl said at one point, "I'm gonna roll this down like GTA" - an apparent reference to the video game Grand Theft Auto.

Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood railed against what he called a broken juvenile justice system at a news conference on Wednesday, venting furiously against state officials and legislators. The president of the children's home, Kitwana McTyer, said the facility for young victims of trauma and neglect cannot be "everything to everyone" and called the incident a prompt to address nationwide problems.

"A 12-year-old and a 14-year-old have it so bad in life that they are going to defy law enforcement and engage them in a gun battle, and the more we de-escalated - the more we were trying to get the armored vehicles out here, and pepper spray and tear gas - the more brazen they got," Chitwood said at a news conference.

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The violence brought renewed scrutiny to youth welfare systems already in the spotlight after the fatal police shooting this year of Ma'Khia Bryant, a teenager who had lunged at someone with a knife outside her foster home in Columbus, Ohio. In Florida, lawmakers have slashed the budget for child welfare while reports raise concerns about overcrowded state-funded homes and overburdened caseworkers.

This week's crisis in Volusia County laid bare tensions over how to address violence from troubled young people and who should be held responsible, as some communities also grapple with spikes in violent crime during the coronavirus pandemic. Chitwood criticised current approaches and "restorative justice" programs as soft-on-crime and focused in large part on the children themselves, declaring at one point that he had "no sympathy, none."

Others saw young defendants let down by the systems meant to help them.

"These children are in desperate need of care in the appropriate setting, which is a higher level of care than we provide," McTyer said in a statement.

The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, singled out for much of the criticism, said in a statement that the incident was "tragic" and noted that it does not oversee the children's home.

"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," the department said.

The public defender for the 7th Circuit, Matthew Metz, said that his office had no immediate comment on behalf of the defendants. Metz said his office tends not to represent co-defendants and so will likely only serve as attorney to the person with the more serious case.

Florida United Methodist Children's Home did not immediately put The Post in touch with other advocates for the children, whom The Post is not naming because of their age.

The defendants were reported missing just before 5 pm on Tuesday, according to law enforcement. Deputies scoured the area and learned that the boy is diabetic, did not have his medication and had reportedly hit a children's home staffer with a stick, they said.

Then, authorities said that at about 7:30 pm, a passerby reported the sound of breaking glass at a house just down the road from the group home.

The children had broken into the property - aided by a crowbar, rocks and a shovel - and found a handgun, two shotguns, an AK-47 and ample ammunition, law enforcement said. Soon, they said, the defendants were both firing at deputies.

Body camera and aerial footage shows deputies vocally reluctant to open fire as shots ring out while they surround the home.

"Let's not shoot these kids, man," someone says over the radio, urging a deputy waiting behind a tree to just take cover. Later, deputies are told not to "escalate this any further."

After the girl is shot, authorities render aid as she wails.

The officers involved will go on paid administrative leave per standard practices, the sheriff's office said. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement said it is reviewing the officers' role in the incident and will present its case to the state attorney's office.

The boy and girl both face charges of armed burglary and attempted first-degree murder of a law enforcement officer, according to authorities. Prosecutors did not immediately respond to an inquiry on Wednesday.

Law enforcement noted the children's troubled pasts and said they have committed or threatened violence before. The 12-year-old does not have a criminal record, the sheriff said, but he was suspended from school for several days in April after threatening to throw a brick at an administrator and later threatening to "kill a student . . . and spread his guts all over the bleachers." He has been in foster care since 2016, Chitwood said.

The 14-year-old was arrested in 2018 for stealing puppies, Chitwood said, and this April was charged for allegedly setting fires in a wooded lot that "became extremely close to several homes."

"This young lady needs a lot of help and since [the Department of Juvenile Justice] released her back into the same environment that allowed this behavior, I hope she does not do it again and instead gets the help she needs," said Rick Staly, the Flagler County sheriff who presided over that case at the time.

The girl was charged with reckless and intentional burning of land as well as felony criminal mischief over $1,000 and returned to the DJJ, which released her to her legal guardian, officials said. A parent quickly put her back in foster care, where she ran away repeatedly, according to Chitwood.

"We're arresting these kids in the state of Florida for violent crimes and the Department of Juvenile Justice wants to put them into places that can't handle them," the sheriff said at a Wednesday news conference.

The sheriff's office said it responded to nearly 300 calls from Florida United Methodist Children's Home last year, and said that a teenage boy at the home last month pleaded no contest to manslaughter in the death of a security officer he had hit in the head.

Florida United Methodist Children's Home said it is halting its Emergency Shelter Care program for 30 days and then will stop the service altogether until it feels it can resume safely, if ever. The home, founded in 1908, says it cares for school-aged victims of "abuse, neglect or family trauma."

McTyer, the home's president, noted that the facility must contact law enforcement whenever a child leaves the property. 911 call logs provided by the sheriff's offic show a slew of reports, including children running away, fights breaking out and alleged abuse.

McTyer suggested some charges would be better off under the Department of Juvenile Justice's care and said Florida United Methodist is overwhelmed, echoing criticisms that have long plagued Florida's child welfare system. That system was privatised in the early 2000s due to a legislative mandate, leaving care in the hands of 17 nonprofits across the state.

In 2020, former child welfare director Chad Poppell blamed the privatisation of foster care in response to a USA Today investigation that found thousands of children were put in the system without an increase in resources, leading to reports that children were crowded into foster homes that were not equipped to handle them.

"This has led to a fractured system that is not appropriately resourced, lacks bandwidth for increases in children in care and is not performance-driven," Poppell said. "This is not how I would design a system around my own children, and especially not our children in foster care."

The state's Department of Children and Families said in a statement that community-based organisations determine placements for foster charges based on the child's needs and availability. The department said it will keep working with state and community agencies to "hold those involved accountable" and ensure the youth have access to the right services.

While there is no national statistics on juvenile crimes, experts have reported school-aged youths spending time otherwise taken up by class committing crimes during the coronavirus pandemic.

"We're not giving them enough supervision. That really created a problem," Tim Hardy, longtime director of the juvenile court in Yuma, Arizona, and president of the American Probation and Parole Association, previously told The Post.

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