Article originally written and reported by Alex Tiegen Jan. 12, 2012
Staff at Harbinger House, a residential facility in New Port Richey for abused or neglected boys, failed to give a youth his prescribed medication.
Harbinger employees were unable to provide appropriate assistance to a youth when he got into a fight with other boys in September.
Also, reported incidents that indicated inappropriate staff response to boys’ behaviors arose after Harbinger had been told to retrain staff in discipline and de-escalation.
All these problems were identified by regional staff of the Florida Department of Children and Families in a
The report was addressed to Isabella Cox, executive director of Juvenile Services Program, the nonprofit in the unincorporated area of Clearwater that ran Harbinger House before it relinquished its licensing to the state in December and closed its doors. Harbinger served youths from families in Pinellas and Pasco counties and elsewhere.
Authorities had reviewed “some recent complaints” and made unannounced visits to Harbinger House and found it lacking, according to the report, which state officials dated Oct. 19 and signed Oct. 25.
The report informed Cox that the state was requiring Harbinger/Juvenile Services Program to complete corrective action to address four areas of concern. Failure to do so would put Harbinger at risk of re-evaluation of its child care license.
In the meantime, an investigator would continue to visit Harbinger “to evaluate the appropriateness of the facility’s child care license independently” of the house’s completion of the suggested course of action.
Here are the four areas of concern identified in the state authorities' report and the actions it requested of Harbinger:
Harbinger has had reported incidents that indicated inappropriate staff response to boys’ behaviors. State authorities had on May 16 required Harbinger House to retrain staff in discipline and de-escalation techniques. Plans to do so were submitted to the state, but training was not completed. Additional incidents occurred.
- Action Harbinger was required to take: Harbinger was told to retrain staff in behavior management techniques and send curriculum content and certificates of completion to the state. Deadline: Nov. 30, 2011.
Harbinger failed to provide medicine to a resident. Medication administration policies and procedures should be improved.
- Action Harbinger was required to take: Harbinger was told to provide state with updated medication policies and procedures, along with training certificates for staff that completed a medication refresher. (At some point before the October corrective action plan was sent, Harbinger submitted a plan to ensure that one staff person per shift be responsible to ensure proper medication distribution.) Deadline: Nov. 30, 2011.
Items at Harbinger House needed repair. Harbinger House should improve the maintenance of the house.
- Action Harbinger was required to take: Regularly inspect and fix or replace all items in house that are in disrepair. Deadline: Ongoing.
Harbinger should provide appropriate supervision to youths.
- Action Harbinger was required to take: Assess whether the number and accessibility of staff at Harbinger met the needs of its youth. Deadline: Dec. 31, 2011.
A licensing review dated in November also disclosed that the state had received almost 30 accusations of mistreatment of youths at Harbinger House over the course of 21 months.
In a letter dated Nov. 29, the day before state's first deadline, Cox responded to the state.
She stated her agency “has completed the requirements stated by your office for Corrective Action. …After 16 years of residential service to youth of the State of Florida, Juvenile Services Program is voluntarily surrendering the licenses granted to Harbinger House Campus for Boys.”
In an attached document, Cox detailed trainings completed or scheduled for staff, work orders for repairs at Harbinger and assessments of medication polices and staffing levels.
She stated the Harbinger licenses would be surrendered on the day the last youth was “discharged.” This was scheduled for Dec. 1, according to Cox.
The boys were moved elsewhere, according to officials.
In a letter dated Dec. 6, a state family service specialist replied to Cox that it had received the Harbinger licenses Dec. 2 and closed them out.
“It appears as if Juvenile Services Program, Inc., generated plans to address the items noted in the corrective action plan but had yet to implement all noted plans,” the reply states. “No further evaluation of the corrective action is required as the agency’s licenses were voluntarily surrendered.”
Terri Durdaller, regional spokeswoman for DCF, elaborated that many of the actions Harbinger had been asked to take “were ongoing and could not be evaluated since the closure of the facility. Some of the training had not been implemented either prior to them closing.”
Complaints Piled Up About Treatment of Boys at Harbinger House
Between Feb. 5, 2010, and Oct. 11, 2011, the Department of Children and Families received about 24 claims of “alleged maltreatment” of kids at Harbinger House, according to the state’s November licensing review. After the state contacted Cox about needed “corrective action,” it received four more complaints.
Complaints include allegations of inadequate supervision, mental injury, physical injury, asphyxiation, medical neglect or environmental hazards.
In almost all cases, investigators found no indicator of abuse or neglect or found that there were indications of mistreatment but not enough to rise to the level of verified abuse.
One claim of medical neglect and two claims of inadequate supervision made in September 2011 were verified with credible evidence. Recommendations were made to improve the home after the state received a claim of environmental hazards.
Four claims were listed as open as of Nov. 22: Two physical injury allegations, mental injury and environmental hazards.
New Port Richey police received a consistent stream of calls about behaviors of youth at Harbinger, both from the house and from neighbors.
In May, a 15-year-old boy from Harbinger House was accused of stealing a and leading New Port Richey police on a vehicle chase. He crashed into an unoccupied business and was arrested.
About a week later, a 16-year-old Harbinger House resident was charged with grand theft auto and two teenagers with him in a vehicle were charged with criminal trespass. The next day, three teenagers from Harbinger were arrested and accused of auto burglary.
The New Port Richey Police Department from Harbinger House between Oct. 1, 2010, and May 21, 2011. All but roughly 60 were missing person/runaway alerts. Harbinger was required to call the police whenever a youth went missing.
The other calls included complaints of an aggravated assault, threats or harassment, theft, a few simple batteries, a property damage report and calls for information to police.
The Department of Children and Families visits licensed facilities annually to make sure they comply with requirements, Durdaller said. They make unannounced visits if they have concerns and follow-up on complaints. Staff work with Child Protective Investigators.
Law enforcement is called to evaluate any institution abuse report to determine if a criminal investigation is needed, Durdaller said.
New Port Richey Police Chief James Steffens said his detectives could not remember any investigation of Harbinger House staff, but calls about the youths were common.
Pasco Sheriff's Office spokesman Kevin Doll said the agency does not cot comment on abuse investigations.
Harbinger Officials Unavailable for Comment
Harbinger House provided services to boys who are in the foster care system or undergoing dependency hearings. In its first year as a shelter in New Port Richey, its occupants were between the ages of 13 and 17, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
By November 2011, Harbinger House was licensed for eight emergency shelter beds, 35 group home beds and 12 independent living beds.
The average length of stay at Harbinger was 96 days, according to the Juvenile Services Program website. The youths were placed there until a stable environment could be found for them, according to the website.
Juvenile Services Progra is a public nonprofit based in unincorporated Clearwater. It offered “services to delinquent youth and youth in need of temporary shelter,” according its Form 990, which nonprofits that bring in more than $25,000 must file each year with the IRS.
Cox said in her Nov. 29 letter that Juvenile Services Program was surrendering its administration, independent living, group home and emergency shelter licenses.
A Patch editor called Juvenile Services Program for comment in December and was told by someone who didn't mention her name that the agency was declining.
Another Patch editor called in January and was told Cox was busy. He went to the office and was not let in.
A woman, who did not give her name, slightly opened the front door and said she could not speak for Cox.
“We’re in the middle of something now,” she said. When asked when a good time to return would be, the woman said there is none.