SEFFNER — The shabby group home where mentally disabled men were allowed to have sex with one another has been physically transformed since abuse reports prompted a state inquiry.
The squat concrete block buildings at the Human Development Center in east Hillsborough County boast new countertops, kitchen appliances, leather couches and wood flooring. An expensive dining table has replaced a battered wood picnic table inside.
"Wonderful!" said Kevin Rouse, a resident with an IQ of about 60 who was sent to the group home in 2003 by a judge who found him incompetent to face a child-molestation charge. "A picnic table means you live in a jailhouse."
But policies and attitudes within the group home and the state agency that oversees it remain unchanged, perpetuating confusion on issues such as sex in group homes and where developmentally disabled sex offenders can live.
For years, Rouse's guardians have fought the state to move him to another home. The state insists the only places that will accept him are more restrictive facilities or homes far from Rouse's mother, alternatives that she has rejected.
Today, the Agency for Persons with Disabilities will ask a Brevard County judge to clarify whether the state should make final decisions for Rouse's treatment and housing, or if Rouse's guardians have that right.
"Now APD is trying to take away my rights as my son's guardian to participate in his treatment and placement decisions," Rose Rouse said in a letter last week to her legislator, Senate President Mike Haridopolis, R-Merritt Island. "I'm afraid if the court grants them this right, APD will move my son as far away from me as they possibly can so that I can't visit him and monitor how he's being treated."
His guardians believe the state is retaliating against them for raising abuse concerns to legislators and the St. Petersburg Times. Last December, the Times detailed rundown conditions and controversial practices at the Human Development Center.
For years, the group home openly allowed residents to have sex with one another during a practice the men called "quiet time." The group home said it was consensual sex, a human right.
But former staff members and national experts questioned whether men without the ability to consent were manipulated or victimized in a sexually charged environment. Group home officials claimed they didn't promote sex or use it as treatment. Interviews and internal documents dispute that. The state's former developmental disability director told a Senate panel that staff matched men up. The Times also interviewed men who said they had been assaulted, and the group home's own records even described one 2005 encounter as a rape.
Yet "quiet time" went on until Rouse's mother shared concerns with Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, who chairs a Senate committee. Storms castigated state officials in Senate hearings for their role overseeing the Human Development Center.
Storms and other senators wrote a bill that could have given hard-to-place developmentally disabled men such as Rouse more housing choices and created for the first time statewide standards for sexual activity in group homes. Despite strong Senate support, the bill died after the House tacked on unrelated attachments.
In April, the state filed a motion asking Brevard County Circuit Judge Robert T. Burger to help resolve the dispute between the Agency for Persons with Disabilities and Rouse's guardians, saying "continuing disagreements" have interfered with Rouse's treatment.
If the judge sides with the state, the state can put Rouse where it wants or make him stay where he is. If the judge sides with Rouse's mother, his guardians fear, it could allow the state to take less responsibility in Rouse's case, opening him up to eviction with few places to go.
"I think it's hard-headed and stubborn," Storms said of the motion.
The motion also asserts that Rouse has received proper treatment for his sexual behavior problems.
But it's just that treatment that Rouse's guardians — and the state Department of Health — are troubled by. A state medical quality assurance investigator has filed with the state Board of Psychology a case against Kim Church, the clinical director of the Human Development Center, according to one person interviewed.
"If somebody feels that there's a need to have an investigation, we feel she's going to get straight A's," HDC spokesman Steve Cole said. "She's one of the best in the nation."
The Human Development Center has long believed that developmentally disabled residents have a human right to engage in sex. Even now, Cole said, some residents engage in sex with each other.
"Sure, there's critics and, sure, we understand that people are going to raise their eyebrows," Cole said, "and our answer is, 'Yes, they're having sex.' But it's fully monitored and checked to make sure these folks have the competency to do this."
Cole called the Times back about 30 minutes later to clarify the policy.
"We do not encourage sex between our clients," he said. "We do what we can to ensure that it does not take place. But in a realistic world we understand that that can take place … and we try our best to not allow those clients who live together to have sex.
"We're awaiting a new state policy that will clarify it even further."
Justin George can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3368.