OKEECHOBEE — According to the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, the Okeechobee Youth Development Center (OYDC) operated by TrueCore Behavioral is currently second in the state for number of juveniles testing positive for COVID-19. As of the DJJ’s June 9 press release, the Palm Beach Youth Academy has more COVID-19 positives among juveniles with 21, followed by the OYDC with 16.
Both the OYDC and the Okeechobee Youth Treatment Center have a combined seven staff members who have tested positive as well.
The first report of a positive result at the Okeechobee facility came at a May 14 Board of County Commissioners meeting from Tiffany Collins, the administrator at the Okeechobee County Health Department.
The Okeechobee County School District had seven employees who had been present at the two different centers on the campus during May. Even though none of the seven employees was presenting symptoms, the district arranged for all to be tested for the virus. Okeechobee Superintendent of Schools Ken Kenworthy reported that all seven tests came back negative.
“All of our employees will work remotely for the duration of this event,” said Mr. Kenworthy. “Our thoughts and prayers are with all those who tested positive, and we hope the facility’s mitigation strategies prevent further spread.”
TrueCore Chief Operating Officer (COO) Michael Pelletier says precautionary measures surrounding COVID-19 were first implemented in early March.
In a statement on the company’s website, TrueCore President Steve Tomlin gave examples of the precautionary measures put in place, which included social distancing when possible, screening all individuals entering facilities, temporarily suspending visitation, temporarily suspending non-essential work inside facilities, limiting staff movement within the facility and enhancing cleaning and disinfecting procedures.
“Validation that the procedures are being followed occurs through visual observation from managerial personnel as well as through telephonic conversation,” said COO Pelletier. “Further, logs and forms are maintained of various activities.”
TrueCore Behavioral was formerly known as G4S Youth Services before the company was bought by BHSB Holdings Inc. for $56.5 million in April 2017. BHSB Holdings itself was acquired by the Minnesota-based investment group Spell Capital Mezzanine only a month prior in March 2017.
On May 26, 16 United States senators signed a letter directing the Department of Justice to seek answers on what was being done to protect juveniles in detention centers from COVID-19.
“COVID-19 thrives in juvenile detention facilities, where communal living arrangements make it difficult or impossible to follow the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommended public health measures such as maintaining social distance, self-isolating and using personal protective equipment,” read the letter. “This reality substantially increases the risk of transmission for juvenile detainees and for the families to which they will be reunited and the staff assigned to supervise and educate them.”
According to the nonprofit Sentencing Project, as of June 11, 627 youth and 704 staff have tested positive for the virus in juvenile facilities in the United States.
“TrueCore is and has been taking the COVID-19 virus seriously across all its locations,” said Mr. Pelletier. “We are following the guidance provided by various sources, including, but not limited to, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, the Florida Department of Health, the Department of Juvenile Justice as well as federal, state and local governmental agencies. We care deeply for our staff and the youth we serve and will continue to follow the guidelines provided to us to keep the youth, staff and our communities safe.”