TAMPA — In response to a Tampa Bay Times investigation, state officials have launched a wide-ranging review of unlicensed children's homes, some of which have been caring for kids for years with no oversight.
The review has identified seven "boarding schools" with no apparent credentials — no state license, no religious exemption and no other state-recognized accreditation. The Times had previously uncovered four of those facilities.
In addition, state investigators now say more than a dozen foster children have been illegally placed in unlicensed homes since 2001. Officials continue to look for more illegal placements and are trying to determine why they occurred and how much taxpayer money was spent.
Department of Children and Families officials said they will work with homes to try to get them licensed or accredited. But homes that do not earn credentials could be taken to court, DCF officials said.
DCF started its review of unlicensed homes after the Times began asking about more than 30 religious facilities that have cared for children with no state license or monitoring. Many of those homes operate legally by earning accreditation from a private, nonprofit group under a religious exemption created in 1984. Others operate with no recognized oversight at all.
In a series of stories this week, the Times revealed that about a dozen unlicensed religious homes have been plagued by allegations of abuse, neglect and mistreatment. Children have been choked, threatened, shackled for days, bruised, beaten, sexually abused and medically neglected to near death.
"I do believe we have to go back in and take another look at strengthening restrictions where we know there has been an abuse," said state Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston.
In addition to the DCF investigation, the Times' questions have prompted several reform efforts by the state and by the Florida Association of Christian Child Caring Agencies, which oversees most religious group homes that choose not to get a state license.
DCF has started flagging unlicensed homes to keep better track of abuse cases in its computer system. And it now requires state child abuse investigators to ask for proof of accreditation when they respond to abuse complaints.
FACCCA, which inspects religious-exempt homes and sets their minimum standards, has started the process of tightening its rules to reflect the state's.
Executive director Buddy Morrow said a lawyer is drafting language to ban shackling, which until now FACCCA has simply said it "does not endorse or recommend." The language will also cap the time under which children can be secluded in "time out" rooms, after one of its homes admitted keeping girls isolated almost every waking hour for days. Morrow said he expects the nonprofit to tighten vague rules so that FACCCA-regulated homes must follow strict corporal punishment procedures. For years, some of those guidelines were written as recommendations.
When asked for comment on problems the Times found and what the state might do to fix them, Gov. Rick Scott's press secretary Jackie Schutz emailed:
"We are fully committed to helping ensure the safety and well-being of every child in this state. The Department of Children and Families will continue to investigate every allegation of suspected abuse or neglect."
Incoming state Senate President Don Gaetz and House of Representatives Speaker-designate Will Weatherford said they are still reviewing the Times series and its findings.
"Obviously, we're going to take a look at it," Weatherford said. "Obviously there have been some troubling incidents. It's on my radar."
Child advocates are calling for legislative action.
Christina Spudeas, an attorney and executive director of the statewide legal advocacy group Florida's Children First, said lawmakers should abolish the religious exemption for children's homes and require all facilities to get a state license.
"It's really clear that the parallel system doesn't work," she said. "These are children's lives. This is who's putting them to bed at night. …
"Nobody should be exempt."
Advocates also want officials to close the "boarding school" option that has long allowed homes to continue operating even when they fail under the exemption. The Times found a children's home could lose its state license, then get accredited by FACCCA. It could then lose its religious accreditation, register as a "boarding school" and continue operating with no legal oversight.
"It's a loophole that is coming close to strangling children," said longtime child advocate Jack Levine, who fought for licensing for all residential facilities in 1984.
Alan Abramowitz, executive director of Florida's Guardian ad Litem program, said he was most disturbed by the fact that children at unlicensed homes are not guaranteed direct access to a state hotline to report abuse. At the very least, he said, all children should be guaranteed that access.
Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said the Legislature should take a fresh look at the religious exemption. "This is something that happened 30 years ago, and we're only hearing about it now and the Legislature has never looked into changing the law?" he said. "Just that alone tells you that law needs to be changed."
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3354.