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CFO Jeff Atwater won't pay for funeral for teen who died in detention

Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater is refusing to pay the funeral expenses for a teenager who died in state custody after unsuccessfully seeking medical attention for several hours.

Juvenile justice administrators had offered to pay up to $5,000 in funeral costs to bury 18-year-old Eric Perez, who died at the West Palm Beach detention center on July 10. But after cutting a check to the Tillman Funeral Home, Florida’s chief financial officer ordered that the check be destroyed, records show.

Perez, who was detained at the Palm Beach County Juvenile Detention Center on a marijuana possession charge, would not have been the first child whose funeral expenses were borne by the state.

In November 2008, the Department of Juvenile Justice paid for the funeral of a Tampa Bay-area youth, said agency spokesman C.J. Drake. In January 2009, the agency helped bury a Highlands County youth.

“The Department of Juvenile Justice has a policy dating from 2008 authorizing the payment of funeral expenses when a youth dies in our custody,” Drake told The Miami Herald.

“The chief financial officer printed the check, and sent it over to us,” Drake said, referring to the agency’s offer to pay for Eric’s funeral. “Then they said, ‘Whoa, don’t send it.’ ” The funeral home, Drake said, has received no payment from the state.

Atwater's office said in a statement: "The CFO wants to have resolution on this claim and in a timely manner for the family. The Department of Juvenile Justice was advised that they did not have statutory authority to pay for funeral expenses.  DJJ was also advised that a more appropriate venue to address this claim is the Division of Risk Management."

 In a July 26 email to DJJ, Mark Merry from the chief financial office said DJJ “does not have statutory authority to make the payment.” An agency spokesman is looking into why the department stopped payment of the check.

Drake said leaders of the two state agencies still are discussing the funeral expenses. “I’m confident that we can work out an agreement so that the expenses are paid,” he said Friday afternoon.” And Secretary Walters is committed to paying the expenses.”

--CAROL MARBIN MILLER AND MARC CAPUTO

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