ST. PETERSBURG — Almost from the moment he arrived at the shabby group home in eastern Hillsborough in 2003, Kevin Rouse wanted to leave.
Developmentally disabled, he felt he was preyed on sexually. The operators even encouraged some of the men, many like Rouse accused of sex crimes, to have sex with each other as part of their treatment in a controversial practice known as "quiet time."
Rouse and his mother complained to the Agency for Persons with Disabilities and elected representatives without success, until the St. Petersburg Times wrote about his case in December. That story forced a shakeup in the leadership of the state agency that oversees group homes, and, with the help of state Sen. Ronda Storms, Rouse was finally moved late last month.
His new group home is in a residential neighborhood in St. Petersburg. On a tour this week, Rouse, 42, said he finally felt at home, showing off a pool, brown leather sofas, pool table and TV room where "everyone gets together to hang out."
He bragged about bowling trips and barbecues, assigned chores that gave him a sense of duty and an upcoming social he's looking forward to where he hopes to find a girlfriend.
"I go to Church's Chicken every Tuesday night," Rouse said before emphasizing, "and I enjoy my new home."
It's a sharp contrast to his former residence at the Human Development Center on Stark Road in Seffner where Rouse was sent by a judge in 2003.
The squat 50-year-old block home has been cited repeatedly by state officials for health violations. Until recent renovations, the men put up with worn couches, chipped floors, dingy mattresses, inconsistent air conditioning and a picnic bench for a dining table — accommodations and services paid for mostly with Medicaid funds at about $100,000 annually per resident.
More troublesome was the center's policy on sex, which HDC staff said was consensual and a right, even for adults of limited intellectual ability.
Some former staff, residents and experts on the disabled warned the policy fostered a sexually charged atmosphere. The center's own records acknowledged a rape occurred in 2005. Rouse claimed a man demanding "quiet time" assaulted him in a bathroom in 2008.
That allegation prompted the state to end "quiet time," but the group home faced no sanctions.
The state pledged to try to move Rouse but said no qualified group homes would accept him except for jail-like facilities or homes farther from his guardians.
Rouse's guardians rejected those options, which they said were being offered as retaliation for exposing the Human Development Center's practices.
After a nearly three-year stalemate, Sen. Storms' repeated interventions, courtroom negotiations and a dozen Times' follow-up stories, the state and Rouse's guardians worked together over a three-week period in June to move him to St. Petersburg.
"I was pleased to finally see all parties working together toward the same goal," Storms, R-Valrico, said.
Eileen Taylor, a friend of Rouse's elderly mother and one of his guardians, said negotiations moved quickly once top agency officials in Tallahassee became directly involved.
"For that we are grateful," she said. "I think the three weeks that it took to do this clearly illustrates that it didn't need to take three years to do this."
Officials from the Agency for Persons with Disabilities declined to comment, saying privacy laws prohibited them from commenting on Kevin Rouse's case.
He lives with six male roommates in a four-bedroom, three-bath house staffed around the clock. A behavior assistant accompanies Rouse whenever he leaves.
Rouse's mother Rose, 76, felt the quality of the group home was too good to pass up even though he is now farther from her home in Palm Bay.
"What a difference," she said. "He really loves it. I just can't get over the difference. I'm really pleased, and I know he is."
In March 2010, the Department of Children and Families reported one incident of alleged sexual abuse at the home.
St. Petersburg police spokesman Mike Puetz said a resident claimed a roommate took him into the bushes and gave him oral sex. Police didn't file charges because neither man could determine right from wrong, Puetz said.
The group home operator said staff broke up the incident and reported it to DCF — as state rules require.
Questions about sex and relationships are talked about openly with residents during daily "family meetings," a group home manager said.
But before residents even move in, they must agree to one rule: No sexual activity at the house.
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or firstname.lastname@example.org.