Funding to help bury remains of children found at Dozier survives contentious debate
Help for families to bury the remains of children exhumed in unmarked graves at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys survived a legislative maneuver on Monday that threatened to put the proposal in jeopardy and stirred fierce opposition from Democrats in the Florida House.
State Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, and Rep. Ed Narain, D-Tampa, have proposed legislation that would give families up to $7,500 to the next of kin of the children discovered in graves on the school's now-shuttered campus in North Florida, just west of Tallahassee. Many of those remains still have not been identified.
But during a debate over the legislation on Monday, Rep. John Tobia, R-Melbourne Beach, said that amount seemed too expensive and proposed an amendment that would slash it to $2,000. Tobia said he spoke with a funeral director he would not name, who told him $2,000 would be more than enough to cover the cost of reburials. He said reducing the amount would save the state money and prevent people from trying to spend up to the maximum of $7,500 for the burials.
"Two thousand is a lot more reasonable than $7,500," Tobia said.
But that brought a flurry of questions from Democrats in the House. State Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, warned that changing the amount would have an effect on the budget, potentially requiring it to go back to the House Appropriations Committee, which is not scheduled to meet again before the Legislature completes its annual session on Friday. Even if that didn't happen, it would have required the bill to go back to the Florida Senate for another vote, even though the bill had already passed a week earlier. Either way, the amendment would have put the bill in serious jeopardy with only four days left in the Legislature's session.
Rep. Reggie Fullwood, D-Jacksonville, questioned why Tobia would offer such a low amount, noting that the cost of burying his grandmother was far more expensive than $2,000.
"So it's your opinion Rep. Tobia that because these remains were in the ground that they don't deserve a respectable burial like one of our family members would?" Fullwood asked Tobia.
Tobia thanked Fullwood for the "leading question" but held firm saying the $2,000 would be more than enough. What was expected to be a few minutes of debate over the Dozier legislation, grew to 15 minutes, with a half dozen other Democrats standing for a chance to ask Tobia questions then debate the proposed amendment more in hopes of defeating it.
It was then House Appropriations chairman Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, went up to Tobia on the floor and said something to him. Moments later Tobia announced he was pulling his amendment from further consideration.
That allowed the House to agree to move the Dozier bill – unamended - to a final vote of the House as soon as Tuesday.
Besides money for burials, the legislation would start the process of creating a memorial to the victims of the school. The bill calls for creation of a task force to recommend a location for a memorial, as well as how it should look. It also directs the Florida Department of State to "identify and locate" families of the exhumed children by July 1, 2017.
Former students at the reform school have reported savage beatings at the hands of school employees. University of South Florida anthropologists told Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet in January that their 3-year investigation of the school uncovered 51 sets of remains on the campus, which is 20 more than the state's chief law enforcement agency said were buried there after a rudimentary investigation in 2008 and 2009.
The report showed that most of the deaths that occurred were because of illness, but others involved shootings, drownings and beatings.