Thursday, July 19, 2018
Public safety

Florida foster children wind up in unlicensed religious homes

Child care workers have violated Florida law by sending foster children to unlicensed religious homes, a Tampa Bay Times investigation has found.
The Times discovered at least four state children living this year in three separate unlicensed religious homes. Two homes told the Times about the transfers. The third published information about the children in its newsletter.

Department of Children and Families officials are investigating how the transfers occurred.

"It's a mistake," said DCF spokeswoman Erin Gillespie. "We're owning up to it. Everyone's owning up to it."

Teen Challenge Vero Beach, also known as Anderson Academy, is among the unlicensed programs that took in foster children.

The reform home for boys was once accredited under Florida's religious exemption, but now operates as a boarding school without any state-recognized accreditation.

In the past decade, DCF has investigated 20 allegations of abuse at the home, finding credible evidence in eight cases involving physical injury, medical neglect and "bizarre punishment."

The home's director, Maynard Sweigard, denies any abuse occurred, but says his program once used more aggressive disciplinary methods. The ranch no longer relies on "hands-on" tactics, Sweigard said.

Sweigard said more than half of the abuse allegations came from children who transferred in from state-licensed facilities.

"These kids were trained to ring a bell and get attention from the DCF," he said.

One allegation involved a boy sent from a state-licensed home who "feigned suicide," attempting to hang himself, Sweigard said.

"He didn't succeed," Sweigard said. "As soon as the words, 'I'm going to kill myself' came out of his mouth, he was stopped."

But the school did not immediately call police because the boy had a history of faking suicide attempts, Sweigard said.

"The next thing I know is there is a DCF investigation and I'm being charged with abuse by neglect."

Prosecutors did not pursue the case.

In September, Sweigard told the Times that he had one child from the state and that his program has been paid more than once in the past to take children licensed homes could not handle.

"When you have a horse you can't train," Sweigard said, "you pay somebody that's better at it than you are. We always looked at it as a compliment."

Other unlicensed homes say they have received state-dependent children, as well. The director of another Teen Challenge program, Gateway Christian Military Academy in Bonifay, said an 18-year-old once in state care wound up at his facility.

Earlier in the year, the Times found two additional foster children placed in another home that had taken a religious exemption in lieu of a license. When the children were discovered, the home immediately applied for and received a state license.

After hearing of the boy at Teen Challenge Vero Beach, DCF sent a mass email warning providers of the misdemeanors and felonies they could face if they broke the law.

The boy was removed, Sweigard said.

DCF also called upon the inspector general to start a statewide investigation to identify how many other state children wound up in unlicensed care.

"We feel like we need an in-depth investigation from an external party to determine exactly what happened," Gillespie said. "How do we ensure this doesn't happen again and where these kids are now?"

Comments
Police: Pinellas infant on life support after father stuffs balled-up baby wipe down his throat

Police: Pinellas infant on life support after father stuffs balled-up baby wipe down his throat

TARPON SPRINGS — Cali’yah Anderson heard a scream Tuesday night and she thought someone was dying. "Help me! Help me! I can’t get it out!" Anderson sprinted into the living room at 1410 Starlight Cove two doors down from her own apartment and found a...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Dive outing among friends turns deadly Wednesday evening in Weeki Wachee

Dive outing among friends turns deadly Wednesday evening in Weeki Wachee

WEEKI WACHEEIt was the first time Said Marjane and his friends had gone free diving near the Eagle’s Nest, in a pool of water in the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area in Weeki Wachee better known as the entrance to a dangerous cave-diving site....
Updated: 3 hours ago
Hernando sheriff: Two dead after three shootings in Hudson, Spring Hill

Hernando sheriff: Two dead after three shootings in Hudson, Spring Hill

SPRING HILL — A string of shootings in Pasco and Hernando counties Thursday left two people dead, including the suspected shooter, and another person seriously injured, authorities said.Theodore Parker, 41, shot at a woman at her home on Chestnut Dri...
Updated: 5 hours ago
Judge grants ex-girlfriend’s restraining order against ex-Plant QB Robert Marve

Judge grants ex-girlfriend’s restraining order against ex-Plant QB Robert Marve

PLANT CITY — Robert Marve hesitated to get out of his attorney’s car when they pulled into the parking lot of the Plant City Courthouse on Thursday afternoon. The former Plant High and University of Miami quarterback was there to plead no contest to ...
Updated: 6 hours ago
Deputies: One man hurt after convenience store shooting near Clearwater

Deputies: One man hurt after convenience store shooting near Clearwater

CLEARWATER — Pinellas County Sheriff’s detectives are investigating a shooting at a convenience store that left one man hurt.According to the Sheriff’s Office, deputies responded to the Circle A Food Store at 1201 Sunset Point Road about 3:30 p.m. Th...
Updated: 8 hours ago
Rabid bat clings to woman’s arm in Sun City Center parking lot

Rabid bat clings to woman’s arm in Sun City Center parking lot

SUN CITY CENTER — A Sun City Center woman got an unusual surprise as she used the bathroom in her home Monday — a rabid bat clinging to her arm.According to the Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough County, the woman was helping a friend into ...
Updated: 9 hours ago

Car thefts continue in Pinellas, this time in Tarpon Springs

TARPON SPRINGS — Police officers arrested five people, including three kids, accused of stealing a Lexus from St. Petersburg and trying to break into cars 30 miles north in Tarpon Springs.According to Tarpon Springs police, officers about 1:30 a.m. s...
Updated: 10 hours ago
Deputies: 18-year-old woman injured in Dunedin shooting is pregnant

Deputies: 18-year-old woman injured in Dunedin shooting is pregnant

DUNEDIN — A woman shot this week by a masked intruder is 20 weeks pregnant, the Sheriff’s Office said Thursday.Naomi Rosado, 18, is in intensive care at Bayfront Health St. Petersburg. The condition of her baby is unknown, the agency said.At about 1 ...
Published: 07/19/18
Lakeland man, 21, dies in Tampa single-car crash

Lakeland man, 21, dies in Tampa single-car crash

TAMPA — A Lakeland man was killed Wednesday night after he lost control at a turn and struck a tree, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.Gabriel Wyatt, 21, was driving a 2007 Audi northbound on Old Hopewell Road toward Highway 60 ar...
Published: 07/19/18
Deputies: Masked shooter wounds Dunedin woman in home invasion

Deputies: Masked shooter wounds Dunedin woman in home invasion

UPDATE: Pinellas County deputies said the victim was about 20 months pregnant. The condition of the baby was not yet known. DUNEDIN — Deputies are searching for a black-clad gunman who shot and wounded an 18-year-old woman during a home invasi...
Published: 07/18/18