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Patient's parent speaks out about dangers at Tampa Bay Academy

TAMPA — Sharon Meyer listened with more than passing interest this week to news that an east Hillsborough County mental health facility was being shut down by the state.

She wasn't surprised.

Her 16-year-old daughter was among those living at Tampa Bay Academy. The girl had been there a year and, at least three times, the state has investigated claims of abuse or neglect against her.

The Department of Children and Families substantiated one claim — that a staff member at the Riverview residential treatment center choked the girl.

"My daughter is coming out of there 10 times worse than when she entered," said Meyer, founder of the Foundation for Large Families, an Internet support group for adoptive parents.

Meyer offered a glimpse of what it is like for parents who, at wit's end, turn to professionals for help, only to discover even more cause for worry.

Tampa Bay Academy, one of 45 residential treatment centers in the state, is fighting to stay open in the wake of findings by the Agency for Health Care Administration that the 20-year-old facility is rife with problems that include unreported sex assaults by minors.

The Agency for Health Care Administration ordered a moratorium on admissions there and, by Friday, had moved 17 of the 54 residents, agency spokeswoman Shelisha Durden said.

Andrew Rock, an attorney for the Academy, declined to respond to Meyer's statements about the school.

Rock appealed to the 2nd District Court of Appeals on Wednesday to stop the state's efforts to close it down, arguing in part that the claims are unfounded.

"While it's under the consideration of the court, we think it's appropriate not to try to litigate it in the press," he said.

Meyer said her daughter was admitted to the program after being diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, a condition that began manifesting itself about the age of 10. The illness eventually made it unsafe for the girl, who had been adopted at birth, to be around the other children in the family, Meyer said.

Meyer was thankful Tampa Bay Academy could help her daughter, who she believes to be a danger. At one point her daughter got into a scuffle with staff members, and one employee was punched and another pushed.

But in the time the girl has been at the facility, Meyer has had numerous occasions to question the level and quality of supervision and safety there:

• When the girl entered, she didn't have scars. Now, she has what Meyer described as nine large gashes on her arms.

• The girl became seriously ill after staff members administered Haldol to the girl, though the parents repeatedly advised it would cause an adverse reaction.

In April, the girl's father rushed to her aid and took her to an emergency room after being summoned to the campus by a staff member who said they couldn't reach any of the center's medical staff. Bob Meyer found the girl drooling and barely able to walk, a condition the parents said doctors attributed to the drug.

• Though the teenager has been there for a year, it was about five months before the family started receiving treatment reports from Tampa Bay Academy. It was six months before she started getting report cards, she said.

• Her daughter once disappeared from the facility for five hours.

• Her daughter had such easy access to medication that she repeatedly stole and took other people's prescribed drugs.

• Meyer said that on one occasion, she was advised that a former female staff member came back to the campus, kissed her daughter and told her that pictures of the girl decorate her house — a situation that prompted other staffers to intervene.

"I think it's even more widespread than they're reporting," Meyer said of the charges against the residential treatment center.

Terry Field, a DCF spokesman, said a cursory review of abuse and neglect investigations at the Academy turned up at least 30 complaints in the past year.

Though two pending 2006 lawsuits against Tampa Bay Academy allege child-on-child sex abuse at the facility, neither DCF nor the Agency for Health Care Administration said they were aware of the lawsuits until this week.

The Health Care Administration, which has been licensing state residential treatment programs since 2006, said its most recent investigation was prompted by an anonymous complaint.

State law does not require residential treatment centers to report such litigation to the licensing agency, said Health Care Administration officials Laura MacLafferty and Polly Weaver.

That's something state Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, said needs to change.

"There needs to be a thorough review — not just of this facility or of what went wrong," she said. "We need to analyze and assess the other facilities that are intensive therapy facilities. How can we prevent this in the future?"

Altogether, there are just 743 beds available in Florida for children under the age of 18 who require the level of intensive mental health care provided by residential treatment centers.

A firm number on the length of the waiting list was not available Thursday or Friday, but lawyers say the need is great.

Nancy Bostock, a Pinellas County commissioner who has personal experience navigating mental health treatment programs for kids, said the stories coming out of Tampa Bay Academy are worrisome to any parent who has felt the need to entrust their child into the care of professionals.

"Any time you put a lot of troubled kids together, you're going to have troubling behaviors," she said. "But that's why we sent our kids to (places like) Tampa Bay Academy."

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at or (813) 226-3383.

Patient's parent speaks out about dangers at Tampa Bay Academy 12/19/08 [Last modified: Thursday, December 25, 2008 10:34pm]
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