A popular bill that could have regulated sex between the developmentally disabled in group homes was thwarted by last-minute legislative infighting.
"Like many issues in the House, politics got in the way of good policy," said Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, whose committee authored the bill.
Reforms proposed in Senate Bill 2062 addressed issues the St. Petersburg Times exposed at a Seffner group home for developmentally disabled men that allowed sex among its residents, including sex offenders. In some cases, the Human Development Center endorsed sex as therapy and matched up partners in a program the men called "quiet time," according to internal documents and statements from the former head of the Agency for Persons with Disabilities.
Center officials maintained they couldn't restrict people's legal rights to sex but experts on the disabled and senators questioned whether men without the capacity to consent were being victimized. The center had categorized at least one encounter as rape in 2005, but it didn't stop "quiet time" until Storms learned of the program years later.
While the Agency for Persons with Disabilities pledged to come up with guidelines for sexual activity among group home residents in 2008, the agency still doesn't have any. The bill would have created a task force that included state officials, advocates and guardians that would have tried to come up with recommendations by November.
The bill also would have given developmentally disabled sex offenders and their guardians more choices on where to live by making the Agency for Persons with Disabilities always have more than one group home to choose from. Now, just a handful of state-licensed group homes such as the Human Development Center accept people accused of sex crimes.
The bill would have given the state agency more freedom to move residents around by prohibiting judges from ordering developmentally disabled sex offenders to particular homes. Judges would instead hand them over to the agency for placement.
Those conditions were written after senators learned of the plight of one man who had been at the Human Development Center since 2003. A judge sent Kevin Rouse, 41, to the center after he was found incompetent on allegations that he molested a child in South Florida. He and his mother objected to "quiet time" and asked officials for a transfer but legal obstacles and a lack of group homes that would accept Rouse kept him where he is.
"It's a very sad day for all the citizens of Florida when the Legislature can't do the right thing," said Eileen Taylor, a former state nurse who raised some of the first concerns about "quiet time." Because of her advocacy, Taylor is now one of Kevin Rouse's legal guardians at his elderly mother's request.
Ten senators on two committees reviewed the group-home reform bill and unanimously supported it. But it failed, in part, because of two unrelated amendments the Florida House tacked on at the last minute, according to Storms' office.
One of the amendments was related to homeless children but state representatives didn't tell senators what it would do, Storms' legislative aide Audie Canney said.
Another limited the amount of money lawsuits could collect against private child protection service providers with government contracts. Storms and Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston, had objected to such an amendment all session but House members tried to force the issue.
"In an attempt to make Sen. Storms swallow the pill," Canney said, "they amended a bill she really wanted with the stuff she hated."
The session ended before senators could remove the amendments and send the bill back. Storms' office said it will now pressure the Agency for Persons with Disabilities to make the proposed changes on its own or try to pass another bill next year. The agency declined to comment as it was still reviewing which bills passed and failed during the legislative session, spokeswoman Melanie Etters said.
"I will continue to press on (with) these issues because it is the right thing to do," Storms said.
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or firstname.lastname@example.org.