TAMPA — When state officials suspended Tampa Bay Academy's license for a residential mental health program last week, they didn't touch its group homes.
Forty-six children between the ages of 8 and 18 continue to live on the Riverview campus in five group homes, designed for kids with less intensive mental health needs than those in the now-closed treatment center.
Yet inspectors with the Agency for Health Care Administration cited Tampa Bay Academy's group homes last year for problems similar to those that led them to close the 54-patient residential treatment center — an unreported abuse allegation and insufficient oversight by the staff.
Rich Warden, Tampa Bay Academy's new executive director, said the findings are at odds with what he's witnessed.
"It's certainly not indicative of what I've seen in my two months here," Warden said. "I think the people who are working and running the group homes are doing a very good job."
State documents show that, in November, a group home therapist failed to immediately report an incident of abuse. She witnessed a staff member shaking a resident by the shoulders, according to a Nov. 7 inspection report by the Health Care Administration.
The therapist reported the incident 18 hours later, but the staffer accused of the abuse remained on campus for nearly nine more hours — also in violation of state rules.
In February, a juvenile known as a flight risk was missing for about two hours before anyone noticed, though staff members had been ordered to keep close watch, according to another Health Care Administration report.
It took a week for police to locate the juvenile, who by then was thought to have committed "several felony acts in the community," investigative documents say.
State inspectors called the episode a "major incident of lack of supervision and neglect."
One person was eventually fired as a result. But inspectors noted that the incident triggered no additional training for the staff until more than five months later, after the state's investigation required such action.
Health officials found more lapses later in the year.
In June, the group home staff documented several incidents in which residents left their quarters at night, ran across campus, scaled a fence and jumped into the facility's swimming pool without intervention.
Over the course of four days, three residents eloped to the pool by either pushing out their bedroom windows or leaving through an unlocked back door, even though staff members documented 15-minute room checks, state documents show.
Despite the recurrence, the Health Care Administration found that the Tampa Bay Academy's group home staff failed to examine why the flights kept happening and took no steps to prevent them.
Homes get checkup
Nick Cox, regional director of the Florida Department of Children and Families, sent a team to investigate the group homes after he first heard that state health officials wanted to suspend Tampa Bay Academy's residential license.
"There was not anything that raised a safety concern," Cox said of that review, adding that the required programs were in place.
Long-term, Cox said, the DCF is seeking to de-emphasize group home philosophy because children bond better when they are in the care of a family rather than shift workers. That trend has no bearing on Tampa Bay Academy at the moment, he said.
Calvin Foster, 81, has his own thoughts about the academy's group homes.
A resident of the Boyette Springs subdivision since 1991, Foster and his wife, Barbara, are used to seeing kids from Tampa Bay Academy wander across the street into his neighborhood. Sometimes staff members chase them on golf carts. Sheriff's Office helicopters join in. "We as residents have gotten almost immune to it," said Foster.
If the state is so concerned about how the academy ran its residential program, Foster went on, it ought to look at other offerings — including the group home.
"If this is any indication of how they operate, they should not be allowed to operate at all," Foster said.
Health Care Administration spokeswoman Shelisha Durden issued this statement in an e-mail:
"Since each Tampa Bay Academy group home is licensed as a separate entity, each is regulated and inspected separately. Licensed facilities are evaluated individually. Each licensee is responsible for addressing and correcting any deficiencies cited during a survey to the satisfaction of the agency. We, of course, have the authority to act accordingly to protect patient safety and issue emergency actions if that is what is deemed necessary."
Besides the group home, Tampa Bay Academy is also campus to a charter school that now enrolls about 125 students.
Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3383.