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'You grabbed her by the neck': Teen's case against juvenile detention center could change state law

"You all grabbed her by the neck and slammed her on the floor. That's something you do to criminals. She's not a criminal. She's just a child who made some bad mistakes in life."

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- An incident involving a 15-year old, which escalated in January at the Duval Detention Center (DDC) could stimulate a change in state law.

Attorneys Belkis Plata and Shannon Schott obtained video from inside the DDC, which is basically "kid jail" in Duval County. The facility is a secured building with razor wire wrapped around the fences.

The video from inside shows the teen, who we call "Sammy" because she is a minor, in the common area at the DDC on 8th Street.

According to Plata and Sammy's mom, Sammy wanted to take a nap inside her room. But detention officers can be seen in the video pulling out her bedding into the common area.

Sammy walks across the room, allegedly to complain to a supervisor and then stiffens her legs. In the video, four officers appear to take her to the ground. You can see in the video an officer's hands on her neck.

Plata calls it a "choke hold." "Basically, they're just doing it to be nasty," Plata said. "There's no reason to do that."

"To me it seems like she was being beaten," Sammy's mom said. "It wasn't no fight. That's four against one. That's double teaming. That's bullying ... taking their job too far."

Plata and Schott are suing and hoping their suit will lead to changing a new law, which took effect in Florida in October last year.

The law was part of a larger bill on juvenile offenders. The section Plata and Schott are upset about says that once a child goes through the court system, he or she must be put in secured detention until he or she is placed.

Prior to the new law, juvenile offenders could be held only 15 business days until they were placed.

The problem now?

Rob Mason is head of the Juvenile Division of the Public Defender's Office the Circuit. He's worked almost 14,000 cases in his career. He said the new law is a mistake.

"It should be repealed," he said.

Mason said some juveniles are at the DDC now from 60 to more than 100 days. The attorneys for Sammy said she was held in the DDC 107 days.

That time doesn't count toward time served, Mason said. And on top of that problem, Mason is worried the detention officers are not trained well enough or paid enough to be at the caliber needed for effectively help juveniles.

"To add trauma to a child who's already experienced trauma is not a recipe for success," Mason said.

In the case of Sammy, her attorneys say she needs therapy programs, not months of lock-up and a situation which escalated into her being pushed onto the floor and held face down by four officers.

"Our client has experienced some pretty horrific things in her past," Schott said. "She's been trafficked and she's been raped."

"She's been diagnosed with PTSD," Plata said.

Their lawsuit asks for more training for the detention officers and or their dismissal. They also want the new law repealed.

Sammy was charged in the incident at the DDC with battery on a law enforcement officer and resisting with violence. But the State Attorney's office dropped all charges.

Sammy got in trouble with the law originally for domestic battery and for fraudulent use of a credit card.

"I'm not saying they're little angels, but they're children," Plata said.

Now Sammy's mom told First Coast News that her daughter is in a treatment program in Tampa. Her attorneys argue she should have been placed there in a much shorter time frame and not been subjected to the treatment she got at DDC.

FCN reached out to the DJJ for comment. Spokeswoman Heather DiGiacomo said the DJJ cannot comment on individual juvenile cases.

But she sent us this comment in regards to Sammy's case: "DJJ's top priority is the safety and security of youth placed in our care and custody."

FCN also asked about the DJJ's position on the new law. DJJ's response: "Prior to the change in law, DJJ's data and research showed that 40 percent of youth awaiting placement while in the community reoffended. Placing these youth in secure detention is a balanced approach to keeping our communities safe and serving youth..."

Mason, the juvenile public defender, however, said prior to the law judges were the ones who decided where a juvenile should go temporarily. He said if a juvenile posed a threat to society, a judge could keep him locked up. But a judge could also put a juvenile at home when the situation was appropriate. Mason wants the judges to be the decision makers again, not the one-size-fits-all new law.

FCN also contacted James Grant, a state lawmakers from Hillsborough County. Grant is one of the authors of the new law. His office is reviewing our requests to interview Grant. FCN has been told by Schott and Plata he is willing to take another look at the new law to see if a change should be made.

Sammy's mom said she was willing to go on TV for her interview because she hopes the story will make changes for all young people in the system.

She says her daughter "did break the law."

But she says in tears, "You all grabbed her by the neck and slammed her on the floor. That's something you do to criminals. She's not a criminal. She's just a child who made some bad mistakes in life."

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