Across South Florida, thousands of kids pour into parks and recreation centers after school for baseball, soccer, swimming, dance, football – you name it. But do you really know who is coaching your kids?
Miami Gardens leaders say their sports programs provide kids with vital role models. “The programs are really to build character, and self-esteem,” said City Manager Cameron Benson, who is ultimately responsible for screening the volunteer coaches.
But a Team 6 Investigation into the backgrounds of volunteer youth coaches in Miami Gardens found coaches who are felons convicted of violent crimes and dealing drugs.
For example, NBC 6 found coaches like Chad Black, who was found guilty of aggravated battery in 2005 and ordered into an anger management program, police records show.
Jacques Charles-Pierre was found guilty in 2007 of stealing a semi-automatic pistol that police records said was loaded with about eight rounds of 9mm ammunition, and of altering the serial number on the gun. He had a burglary with assault and battery conviction six years prior. And Brandon Terry committed armed robbery with a firearm in 2007.
“Our message is yes, we give individuals a second opportunity, a chance, if you will, to give back to the community,” Benson said.
Charles-Pierre is the only youth coach with a criminal conviction that NBC 6 found that agreed to speak for this story. He said he has turned his life around and now runs a business providing entertainment like bounce houses for kids' parties. He said he believes his past makes him the perfect role model for the teens on the football team he coaches.
“I am there to show them the right way so not to do this; not to do that,” Charles-Pierre said.
“The past is the past," Charles-Pierre told NBC 6. "The point is are you doing the same thing. As long as I am coaching I am going to stay off the street and keep the kids off the street.”
But some parents don’t think Charles-Pierre and others with a criminal past should be able to volunteer.
“I would prefer not to have my kids around someone with a background like that,” parent Claude Dallas said.
Said Julieth Castanada, “Why would I want my daughter to be around people who is not giving her something positive?“
Even parents willing to give coaches with criminal pasts a second chance want full disclosure.
“Of course I would want to be notified – yes. I think the center should really notify the parents of who and who is coaching and what they have in their past and things like that,” Roy Campbell said.
Charles-Pierre said he is a parent too and agrees that the city should provide parents with that information before kids hit the practice field. That’s something the city manager, Benson, says he is now looking into.
The Team 6 Investigators obtained the background checks the city of Miami Gardens ran on 306 youth coach volunteers, mostly for football. Thirty-one, or just about 10 percent, had felony convictions in the past 10 years.
Andre Williams is a former city councilman.
“We need to hold our volunteers to higher standards,” Williams said. He pointed to a city ordinance that he says allows Miami Gardens to refuse to allow anyone to volunteer if it has “good cause.” That is an option the city should exercise, Williams said.
“The city of Miami Gardens needs to provide proper role models for these kids and these individuals with certain felony backgrounds are not proper role models and should not be supervising our kids,” he said.
Williams said role models are especially important in communities like Miami Gardens where violence is so common. Just last month, an 18-year-old was killed in a drive-by shooting and residents and city leaders have rallied for peace. Tequila Forshee, just 12, was murdered when someone sprayed her grandmother’s house with bullets, and in late October 10 people were shot in just 11 days.
The Miami Gardens ordinance can be used to ban anyone with two convictions for a violent felony or trafficking of a controlled substance within five years. But Mayor Oliver Gilbert – then a city councilman – successfully introduced an amendment to relax the standard to 10 years.
Compare that to Miami Lakes, the city of Miami, Deerfield Beach and Pembroke Pines, which have zero tolerance for violent felonies and where simple drug possession, not just trafficking, can be grounds for disqualification.
Still, Benson defends Miami Garden’s tolerance of criminals as youth coaches.
“I can tell you to date, we haven’t had any incident with volunteers in our program,” he stated.
NBC 6 has not learned of any such incidents involving kids in Miami Gardens. But volunteer coach Michael Terry was convicted in 2004 of felony battery on a sports official on school property in Miami-Dade County, court records show.
Despite Miami Gardens’ ban on drug traffickers, the Team 6 Investigators found volunteer coaches like Aaron Batten, who was convicted of armed cocaine trafficking in 2006, and Theophilus Freeman, who was found guilty of trafficking cocaine, marijuana and narcotics at least eight times in 13 years – most recently in 2013 when he pleaded guilty to smuggling marijuana into a detention center, in the same year that he was a Miami Gardens volunteer football coach.
Benson did not know of anyone who applied to coach and has been rejected.
“That makes me very angry because that means they weren’t following the guidelines of the ordinance,” former councilman Williams said.
One volunteer coach who declined to appear on camera told NBC 6 that the coaches sometimes drive the kids to and from practice. That coach had a DUI conviction while 51 others have been convicted of driving with a suspended license, five of them habitually.