BEACON PHOTO/AL EVERSON GRIM NEWS — Despite the cheerful holiday decorations in their meeting chamber, the DeBary City Council is somber upon hearing from Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood and Carla Quann, juvenile services director for the Sheriff’s Office, about a surge in youth crime. From left on the City Council dais are City Council Member Patricia Stevenson, Mayor Karen Chasez, Vice Mayor Phyllis Butlien, City Attorney J. Giffin Chumley, and City Manager Carmen Rosamonda. Chitwood asked for the City Council’s help to lobby for funding for an assessment center for youths at risk, or already involved in criminal activity.

What is going on in DeBary?

For this year — and 2021 is not yet over — the Mayberry-like town has seen a 155-percent increase in arrests for serious juvenile crimes over the preceding year. In actual numbers, there were nine arrests of underage people for felonies in 2020. There have been 23 such arrests thus far for the year now waning.

In fairness, not all the suspects were from DeBary. Some were from other places, such as Orlando, but the advent of crime to the usually tranquil community troubles its people.

Still in living memory, too, is the strangulation of a DeBary mother by her teenage son and his burial of her beneath a fire pit on church property in 2018. The youth convicted of the death was 15 at the time, and he had help from two 17-year-olds in trying to cover up the crime.

Is the increase in crime a reaction to the pandemic, with lockdowns and school closures last year? Or are there deeper problems plaguing the youth today?

“We’re finding that a lot of our kids have mental-health issues,” Carla Quann, the director of juvenile services for the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office, said.

Can anything be done to halt the escalating trouble? Does the municipal government have the means to deal with the social woes?

DeBary, long considered a quiet senior-retirement place bisected by U.S. Highway 17-92, is now a city of approximately 20,000 people dealing with juvenile lawlessness that commands attention from law enforcement, educators and residents. 

At the urging of Mayor Karen Chasez, a goodly portion of the City Council’s Dec. 15 meeting became a seminar on the youth crime wave and possible ways of reversing it.

“This is basically an information-gathering exercise for our council,” Mayor Chasez said at the outset of the meeting, which drew a larger-than-normal audience.

“I believe that we do not know what we do not know,” she added.

Chasez emphasized the problem “involves a very tiny fraction” of DeBary’s youth. Still, at least some are growing up to become experienced felons, with such crimes as attempted first-degree murder, armed robbery, armed burglary and grand theft auto. 

Within the hour, many of those in attendance learned more about the unsettling scenario. 

Melissa Fratus, assistant principal for eighth grade at River Springs Middle School in Orange City, where many students living in DeBary attend, said fighting among students at her school has dropped from 43 incidents last year to 16 this year. She echoed Mayor Chasez’s point about the scarcity of troublemakers.

“It’s such a small percentage of the students,” Fratus said.

She called upon adults to volunteer to mentor youth at River Springs and other schools.

“They need you, just like they need us,” Fratus said, adding young teens need positive role models. 

Vice Mayor Phyllis Butlien urged “anyone that has just an hour a week” to devote time for mentoring youngsters in the schools.   

“There’s no substitute for parents,” Council Member William Sell said. “I feel there’s a lack of parenting. … The answer is at home. It begins at home.”

As for the role of parents in curbing their children’s movement toward trouble, Quann advised parents to know what their children are bringing home and taking to school. She countered a common belief about a youngster’s rights to privacy.

“I have parents tell me, ‘Oh, that’s my child’s room. I can’t go in there.’ Parents, you pay the rent, and you pay the bills. You have the right to go in there,” she said. 

Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood

Sheriff Mike Chitwood, who also attended, proposed development of a juvenile assessment center for troubled and at-risk youth.

“If you will help me lobby the County Council and the state Legislature to find the funding to get that up and running, Stewart Marchman has already said they have a building force. All of the stakeholders have said, ‘Hey, we are all-in.’ There are very successful assessment centers in the state of Florida,” Chitwood told the City Council. 

Asked later if she plans to slate additional discussions on DeBary’s juvenile crime, Chasez replied, “This begins a dialogue, to let everyone know that we would be open to ideas.”

She added, “These things will take time, but it will generate ideas. When people know you are open to hearing them, they will talk to you.”


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