West Palm Beach jail staff failed to call 911 before teen died
State juvenile justice officials say staffers at the West Palm Beach lockup failed to call 911 when a teen in their care
became deadly ill. The teen died hours later.
BY CAROL MARBIN MILLER
Florida juvenile justice administrators confirmed late Monday that guards and supervisors at a West Palm Beach
lockup never sought emergency care for a teenager who suffered in pain for hours before he finally died.
As the Department of Juvenile Justice’s investigation into the July 10 death of Eric Perez, 18, continued Monday,
authorities revealed that the lockup’s top administrator, Superintendent Anthony Flowers, was among four
employees suspended last week. Another two employees, a guard and a supervisor, were fired.
“While the cause of death is yet unknown, it is clear that staff at the facility during the crisis did not contact 911 in
accordance with DJJ policies and training,’’ Samadhi Jones, a DJJ spokeswoman in Tallahassee, said in a statement
Jones declined to discuss any other aspects of Perez’s death Monday.
DJJ Secretary Wansley Walters, a former head of Miami’s juvenile assessment center, said in a prepared statement:
“We took immediate action because we cannot tolerate staff not following policies and procedures, especially as it
relates to the medical care of youth in our custody.”
One of the two people fired in the incident, guard Floyd Powell, 35, told The Miami Herald on Monday he was fired
after he disclosed to investigators that he was forbidden to call 911 when he became concerned for the teen, who
was screaming that his head hurt and had vomited for several hours.
“I was going to call 911, but my supervisor looked at me in the face and said, ‘He’ll be fine. Don’t call 911,’ ” Powell
Powell’s one-page termination letter, provided to the newspaper late Monday under Florida’s public records law, said
only that Powell had failed to complete a probationary period.
Powell’s lawyer, Cathy L. Purvis Lively of Lake Worth, said she will seek damages from the state for his “wrongful
“This guy desperately wanted to call 911,” Lively said. “He was told, No, you are not to do that.”
Powell could not make the call on his own, Lively said, because the “module” where he oversaw several detained
youth did not contain a telephone, and Powell could not reach a phone without walking away from his post and
leaving other youth unsupervised. Guards are not allowed to bring their personal cell phones into the lockup.
And though Powell and other guards did notify an on-call nurse to see Eric, the nurse failed to return two messages,
“I asked [Perez] ‘What’s going on?,” Powell said. “He wasn’t talking. He was crying out loud in pain.”
Leaders of the Palm Beach Public Defender’s office told The Herald late Monday that several other detainees in the
B2 Module with Perez confirmed to their attorneys that Eric had pleaded for help for hours without success.
“It is our understanding that at least one child, and possibly more, tried to get assistance for this child,” Public
Defender Carey Haughwout said.
On the day she buried her son, Maritza Perez, 47, is still looking for answers. “I am devastated, absolutely
devastated,” she said.
“Everybody who was there shouldn’t be there any more,” she said. “They should have 24-hour, around-the-clock
medical care for these kids. Period. . . . Just because a kid makes a mistake, he shouldn’t have to pay for it with his
Perez, who had been arrested on a robbery charge and had turned 18 a few days before his death, was due to be
released in a few days.
Haughwout, the West Palm Beach public defender, said she fears cutbacks in lockup staff may have contributed to
Perez’s death. In recent months, more than a dozen detention center employees had been laid off by the state.
Though personnel at the lockup had declined, Haughwout said, the number of youth detained there did not. “That’s
a recipe for disaster,” she said.
On the morning Perez died, Powell said he was working a double shift so that the lockup would have enough guards
to patrol the facility. “There is some concern that they didn’t have sufficient staff to be able to take [Eric] to the
hospital,’’ Haughwout said. “That doesn’t excuse not calling an ambulance.”
Perez’s death bears striking similarities to the 2003 death of an Opa-locka teenager that sent shock waves
throughout the state.
On June 9, 2003, 17-year-old Omar Paisley died of a ruptured appendix after he had pleaded with guards and
nurses at the Miami lockup for three days to see a doctor. Records and testimony from a criminal investigation and
legislative hearings showed that guards had sought permission to call for an ambulance, but were thwarted by their
Following Omar’s death, DJJ administrators announced a series of sweeping changes to medical care in juvenile
lockups. Among the policies: Any guard, supervisor, or even volunteer was given absolute authority to call for an
Former state Sen. Dan Gelber, who blasted DJJ relentlessly following Omar’s death as part of a legislative panel,
called Eric’s death yet “another chapter’’ in what he and other lawmakers then called the agency’s “culture of
“Another child has been killed by bureaucratic indifference,” said Gelber, a former prosecutor who lost his bid for
Florida attorney general last year. “The state cannot take responsibility for children and then kill them.”
Dale Dobular, who was superintendent of the Miami lockup for almost four years after Omar died, remembers
designing a poster that administrators ordered to be hung in every DJJ facility across the state. The poster clearly
stated that lower-level employees need not seek permission to call 911, Dobular said.
Powell insists no such posters remained at the lockup in West Palm Beach.
And by the time Dobular left the Miami lockup in the summer of 2008, he felt that many of the protections put in place
after Omar’s death already had begun to erode.
“One of the reasons I left was because I didn’t feel like I could guarantee the safety of the kids in that facility,
because services continued to get cut,” Dobular said. “I felt that it would take another Paisley before the agency
recognized it could happen again.”