Children’s home pauses emergency shelter program after youths are charged with attempted murder of deputies
Jason Hanna, Leyla Santiago and Sara Weisfeldt, CNN
(CNN) — A central Florida children’s group home says it is pausing its emergency shelter program after two children staying there allegedly broke into a nearby home and shot at responding deputies.
The 14-year-old girl and 12-year-old boy ran away from the Florida United Methodist Children’s Home in Volusia County on Tuesday, broke into a farm home less than 2 miles away, found guns inside, and used them to open fire on deputies investigating the break-in, the county sheriff’s office said.
Law enforcement officers returned fire, shooting the girl in the abdomen and arm; her condition was stable Wednesday, the county sheriff’s office said. The boy surrendered and was not injured, the sheriff’s office said.
The CEO of the children’s home said Wednesday that because of this incident it would stop providing its emergency shelter program “until such time if/when that we feel that we can do so in a safe manner for the children coming into care and simultaneously protect our staff.”
“At this juncture, the level of children who are being sent to us through emergency shelter care at times is beyond the scope of our capabilities to provide the care required and limits who we can serve as part of our mission,” FUMCH CEO Kitwana McTyer said in a news release.
FUMCH, which provides or facilitates other services such as foster care and an independent living program for older adolescents, said it had three children in its emergency shelter program Wednesday. It did not say where those children would be placed during the pause.
“This situation is tragic and is the result of the system failing our children,” McTyer said. “These children are in desperate need of care in the appropriate setting, which is a higher level of care than we provide.”
Charging affidavits for the juveniles indicate they are charged with attempted murder of a law enforcement officer and armed burglary. The boy is 4 feet, 11 inches tall and weighs 78 pounds, while the girl is 5 feet, 11 inches tall and weighs 140 pounds, the documents state.
Children broke into home and then opened fire, authorities say
The sheriff’s office on Wednesday released over nine minutes of edited video from the standoff between the deputies and the juveniles at the farm home — footage from body cameras and a helicopter looking down at the scene.
“She’s pointing the gun. She’s pointing the gun behind the trash can,” one officer says in the footage shortly before the deputies open fire.
A string of steps leading to the encounter began Tuesday afternoon, when the boy and the girl were reported to have run away from FUMCH, located in Enterprise, roughly 30 miles north of Orlando, the sheriff’s office said. The children evaded police for hours.
Around 7:30 p.m., a passerby told deputies he heard glass breaking at a farm home in Deltona, about a mile and a half east of the group home.
Deputies checked and discovered someone had forced entry into the home, according to the sheriff’s office.
Deputies contacted the homeowner, who said that nobody should be home and that there was a handgun, pump shotgun and an AK-47 inside, as well as a large amount of ammunition, the sheriff’s office said.
As deputies surrounded the home and tried to establish a rapport with the boy and girl, they were met with gunfire, the sheriff said. The sheriff’s office said the children fired at deputies on four separate occasions over about 35 minutes, and deputies hid behind trees amid waves of shooting.
Officers took multiple rounds of gunfire before “they were left with no other choice but to return fire,” Sheriff Mike Chitwood said this week.
“We try to deescalate, we throw a cell phone into the house to try to talk to them,” Chitwood said.
“The 14-year-old comes out of the garage with a pump shotgun, levels it at deputies, and despite warnings to drop it, she walks back into the garage. She comes back a second time, and that’s when deputies open fire,” Chitwood said.
After the girl was shot, the boy, who had been armed with an AK-47, surrendered to deputies, according to the sheriff’s office.
At least eight deputies were involved in the incident, the sheriff’s office said.
At a news conference on Tuesday night, Chitwood praised his officers for their restraint.
“Deputies did everything they could tonight to de-escalate, and they almost lost their lives to a 12-year-old and a 14-year-old,” he said. “If it wasn’t for their training and their supervision … somebody would have ended up dead.”
Boy admitted to shooting at officers, affidavit reads
The charging affidavits include details from an interview with the boy in which he admits to shooting repeatedly at officers using a handgun, a shotgun and an AK-47 that they had taken from the home. He told investigators that they saw deputies outside the home, at which point the girl said, “I’m gonna roll this down like GTA,” referring to the video game “Grand Theft Auto,” according to the affidavits.
The boy “told detectives he knew they were cops when he shot them because he wanted to harm them. There are the words of a 12-year-old,” Chitwood said at a news briefing.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating the officers’ use of force at the request of the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office, according to FDLE spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger.
The FDLE will examine the facts of what happened, develop a time line and then provide information to the state attorney, who will make a determination about whether the use of force was justified, she said.
Sheriff criticizes state’s juvenile justice department
Chitwood denounced the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice in particularly harsh terms, calling the department a “failure” and a “fraud.”
The boy has been in foster care since at least 2017, according to the sheriff. He does not have a prior criminal history, but made two threats in school this year, once threatening to throw a brick at an administrator, and five days later threatening to kill a student and “spread his guts all over the bleachers,” Chitwood said.
The sheriff said on Tuesday that the girl had burned down a home in April, but on Wednesday, he corrected himself, saying the girl had set fires in a wooded lot that came close to burning homes.
After the girl was charged with setting the fires, “DJJ, who’s the gatekeeper, decides that arson isn’t a violent crime,” Chitwood said at Wednesday’s news conference. “So they’re going to return her back to her mother. Well, her mother obviously can’t control her, so they placed her into foster care.”
In her news release, McTyer, the FUMCH leader, noted “the gaps in the system that result in the lack of adequate or appropriate placement for children who should at times be in the care of the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ).”
The girl ran away from foster care several times before being sent to FUMCH on May 30, “and then we all know what happened on June 1,” Chitwood said.
The sheriff also criticized FUMCH: The sheriff’s office said it handled close to 300 calls at the FUMCH in 2020.
McTyer said it is required by law to contact law enforcement if a child leaves the property, so many of the 300 calls to the sheriff’s office in 2020 were not emergencies.
The Department of Juvenile Justice told CNN in a statement that FUMCH “is not a DJJ program.”
“The events that unfolded (Tuesday) night in Volusia County are tragic, and the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) is thankful that there were no casualties as a result of this incident,” the DJJ said.
“As an agency, we serve alongside the various partners that make up Florida’s juvenile justice system, including law enforcement, the courts, state attorneys, and community providers to hold youth accountable for their actions,” the department’s statement reads. “DJJ does not tolerate violence that jeopardizes the public safety of our communities.”