Sunday, June 24, 2018
Public safety

Florida investigates unlicensed children's homes for abuse, neglect

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 [email protected] or (813) 226-3354.

Comments
Authorities find

Authorities find "inmate" who walked away from Bilirakis event

The 23-year-old man who authorities said walked away from a New Port Richey political event while under supervision of a treatment center on Saturday has been located.The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office described Nicholas Moore, 23, as both an "inmate"...
Updated: 8 hours ago
FHP: Wrong-way driver hit 100 miles per hour before sideswiping car

FHP: Wrong-way driver hit 100 miles per hour before sideswiping car

A Clearwater man who authorities said sideswiped a car while driving more than 100 miles per hour the wrong way on U.S. 41 was arrested Friday. Wendel Jamel James, 35, is charged with DUI with property damage, reckless driving and leaving the scene ...
Published: 06/23/18
Tampa boy, 14, shot on bike, police asking for help

Tampa boy, 14, shot on bike, police asking for help

TAMPA — Police want to know who shot 14-year-old De’Nico Thomas after a night of playing video games.Thomas was at a friend’s home Wednesday night and walking home when Tampa police said he was shot, resulting in life-threatening injuries.As he faces...
Published: 06/22/18
Clearwater police search for ‘Bic Bandit’ accused of stealing lighters

Clearwater police search for ‘Bic Bandit’ accused of stealing lighters

CLEARWATER — Police detectives are searching for a man coined the "Bic Bandit" based on reports that he’s stolen dozens of lighters from the same 7-Eleven.According to Clearwater police, the man has swiped the lighters four times in the last month, t...
Published: 06/22/18
FHP: One dead, three seriously injured in head-on Pasco crash

FHP: One dead, three seriously injured in head-on Pasco crash

DADE CITY — A Dade City man was killed and three others were seriously injured after a pickup truck and motorcycle crashed head-on Friday morning, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.Floyd Williamson, 72, of Lakeland, was driving northbound on U....
Published: 06/22/18
Body of missing Hernando park ranger found in Georgia; boyfriend being questioned

Body of missing Hernando park ranger found in Georgia; boyfriend being questioned

Georgia detectives on Friday recovered the body of Mitzi Marie Babb, a 43-year-old Hernando park ranger who had been missing since Tuesday.Her boyfriend, arrested Thursday on unrelated charges, has been called a person of interest in her disappearanc...
Published: 06/22/18
A Pasco driver was annoyed another driver was texting. So he pointed a firearm at her.

A Pasco driver was annoyed another driver was texting. So he pointed a firearm at her.

PORT RICHEY — A 41-year-old Uber driver was arrested Friday after police said he pointed a firearm at another driver because he was annoyed that she was texting and driving.Philip Macchio was driving near State Road 52 and U.S. 19 around 12:30 a.m. F...
Published: 06/22/18
Deputies: Cheerleading coach sent explicit images to 16-year-old

Deputies: Cheerleading coach sent explicit images to 16-year-old

A 28-year-old cheerleading coach faces charges for engaging in "inappropriate behavior" with a 16-year-old girl, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.Victor Martin Valenty faces 10 counts of traveling to meet a minor, distributing ob...
Published: 06/21/18
Updated: 06/22/18
Suspect arrested in rapper XXXTentacion’s shooting death

Suspect arrested in rapper XXXTentacion’s shooting death

FORT LAUDERDALE — Authorities in Florida have arrested a suspect in the killing of rising rap star XXXTentacion, who was fatally shot in his luxury BMW electric car as he left an upscale motorcycle dealership. Dedrick Devonshay Williams, 22, o...
Published: 06/21/18
St. Pete police: Three lieutenants lied about their work hours

St. Pete police: Three lieutenants lied about their work hours

ST. PETERSBURG — Three lieutenants responsible for supervising the police officers who patrol the city were found to have been faking their work hours instead of showing up for duty on time.In some cases, the watch commanders submitted time sheets st...
Published: 06/21/18