RIVERVIEW — A state agency has begun shutting down a 20-year-old children's mental health treatment center after investigators found evidence of sexual assaults, a fearful atmosphere, and a dangerous lack of proper supervision.
Tampa Bay Academy, a 24-acre Riverview campus of treatment facilities and live-in duplexes at 12012 Boyette Road, has until Jan. 9 to relocate its clients to other centers and begin serving an indefinite suspension, said Fernando Senra, spokesman for the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration.
The state report on conditions at the center portray a facility where the staff was intimidated, and some patients preyed upon employees and fellow clients.
During a period in November and December, state health care investigators said they saw at least three separate incidents of clients acting sexually inappropriately or in an assaulting manner, according to the state emergency order.
In perhaps the most serious allegations, authorities said a client sexually assaulted a staff member twice, with another client participating in the second attack.
In another instance, two to four clients subjected a staff member to "sexually inappropriate and assaultive behavior.'' That staff member had been working alone, the report said.
One employee admitted being so fearful of clients that the person "hid within the safety of staff offices,'' leaving clients "devoid'' of supervision.
And a client who claimed to have gonorrhea and HIV had sexual contact with another client despite a doctor's order to keep them separated.
Other cases the state documented include clients blocking entrances with chairs, stealing staff keys, pulling fire alarms and biting each other.
In response, state health care officials said, Tampa Bay Academy failed to redirect its staff, act on the problems, notify law enforcement or governing agencies or refer the children to mental health services, the emergency order said.
The center has been prohibited from taking any clients while it works to move its 54 children, who are between ages 8 and 17.
"We are actively monitoring the facility to ensure resident safety," Senra said.
"Florida's children and adolescents who suffer from mental illness deserve treatment and services which protect them from the risk of injury. … Children and adolescents must not be subjected to such threats and dangers," the state order states.
Attempts to reach Tampa Bay Academy officials late Wednesday were unsuccessful. A message left at the academy wasn't returned.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office has launched a separate criminal investigation into the allegations, said spokesman J.D. Callaway, who declined to elaborate.
Academy parents and guardians have been notified, Senra said, and state officials are making random checks up until the deadline to ensure the children are safe.
The academy's clients include a mix of private-pay children, those funded by Medicaid as well as children sent there by the Department of Children and Families.
The academy "has exhibited an incident reporting, investigation and intervention system that has failed in all regards," the state order said.
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or [email protected]