You may have read recent articles about the Florida Keys Children’s Shelter. Because you are a valued supporter, we want to take a moment to let you know where we are as an organization, what we have done to improve safeguards, and where we plan to go.
Over the course of almost 30 years, the Children’s Shelter has improved more than 24,000 lives in the Florida Keys and Key West through our five no-cost programs. The overriding mission of the Children’s Shelter is to protect the health, safety, and well-being of the youth under our care. Our passion for serving the community is unavoidably accompanied by certain challenges, which we are certainly willing to take on. Sadly, we have witnessed a steady increase in at-risk youth dealing with a history of severe mental and behavioral health issues, often combined with alcohol and substance use/abuse.
This awful combination has, unfortunately, led to some tragic outcomes that have deeply affected the youth, their families, and our team. In 2014, we experienced the shocking revelation that one of our youth care workers was arrested for sex-trafficking involving two minor females who resided in our shelter but chronically ran away. Then last year, we were deeply saddened when one of our residents attempted suicide under our care, and later passed away. This year, we and other upstanding organizations were hit with a lawsuit alleging a failure to protect a 17-year-old girl from being sold into sex trafficking. In each of those incidents, we cooperated fully with all appropriate authorities – including the Monroe County Sheriff Office, the Department of Children and Families, Our Kids, Wesley House Family Services, and other agencies – by providing all information requested.
To do everything possible to ensure that incidents like these never happen again at the Children’s Shelter, we have taken the following steps:
- In the 2014 case, the youth care worker was terminated immediately, and eventually was found guilty and sentenced to 32 years in federal prison. Even though the investigation showed that the Children’s Shelter had followed all employment screening and safety protocols, we have increased our safeguards by conducting routine employee background screenings and additional staff training, added security cameras and alarm systems, and revamped our screening and intake process and no longer automatically accept all placement referral.
- The 2016 death of the young resident was a tragic reminder that we all must be constantly aware of signs of trouble among those we work so hard to help. Leadership at the Children’s Shelter initiated an internal review of current policies and procedures to ensure that our practices not only meet but in fact surpass mandated supervision, safety, and education protocols for licensed residential facilities in Florida. We added enhanced record-keeping, training, and lifesaving and safety equipment, offered grief counseling to our residential youth and to our team members.
- Earlier this month, we reached a confidential settlement that resolved allegations by a then-17-year-old youth who chronically ran away in 2012 and became involved with sex traffickers.
We see the tremendous necessity for our services in the community. Knowing the extent of this need and all the challenges that accompany it, the Children’s Shelter will continue serving the most vulnerable youth in the Florida Keys and Key West, always with the highest standards of compassion and care. Our goal is to give these boys and girls the tools to live a full, safe life. At the same time, we recognize that when youths are determined to run away or engage in risky behavior and self-harm, they will succeed. That’s why we will remain diligent to identify potentially dangerous behaviors early and intercede swiftly and appropriately.
We thank you for your continued support, and for believing in us. We are so grateful to have the opportunity to serve the community.
William Mann Ben Kemmer