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Troubled Tampa Bay Academy lays off most of its workers

TAMPA — About 125 Tampa Bay Academy employees lost their jobs this week as state officials moved forward with plans to revoke licensing for the youth residential treatment center.

Kevin Sheehan, president and chief executive of parent company Youth and Family Centered Services, said the for-profit company was forced to make the dramatic cuts.

The Florida Agency for Health Care Administration ordered all of the academy's 54 children and teenagers placed in other facilities before Jan. 9 amid concerns the treatment center was unsafe.

Most patients were gone by Tuesday and the layoffs were announced Wednesday.

"This kind of massive reduction in the census there has precipitated the layoffs," Sheehan said Friday by telephone from the company's headquarters in Austin.

But Sheehan said his ultimate goal is to re-establish a "top-flight" residential treatment program at the Riverview campus — a process he estimated could take months, not years.

"We're working hard with AHCA on the things we mutually agree on to get them corrected," Sheehan said.

About 15 employees who remain at the residential treatment center will help with the rebuilding effort, said executive director Rich Warden, who joined the facility in November.

"It's very stressful and it's not a part of the job that anyone enjoys," Warden said of the layoffs.

Health Care Administration officials wrote in December that poor staffing conditions at the 20-year-old Tampa Bay Academy fostered an unsafe environment for patients and employees, which included unreported sexual assaults on staff members. Though privately owned, the facility receives funding from Medicaid and the Florida Department of Children and Families.

Sheriff's deputies continue to investigate claims of previously unreported assaults by patients, Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office spokesman J.D. Callaway said.

Records show that in the past five years, deputies have responded to 793 calls for service to the campus, located at 12012 Boyette Road.

Situated on 24 acres south of the Alafia River, Tampa Bay Academy also houses a charter school and a group home, which is designed for children with less severe issues.

The group home was unaffected by the changes. But the 170- to 180-student charter school lost 54 students and four employees when students who lived at the residential treatment center were moved, Warden said.

The residential treatment center targets children ages 4 to 17 dealing with a range of mental health issues including depression, substance abuse, rage, promiscuity, eating disorders, trauma anxiety and sexual abuse victimization.

Sheehan said that, moving forward, the company plans to be more selective about whom it hires and whom it admits for care.

"Severe conduct disorder patients are not going to respond well to this program," Sheehan said, referring to a condition characterized by symptoms of aggression, frequent lying, running away from home overnight and property destruction.

Warden said that, in the past, the facility has admitted those hard-to-place patients even though their problems are more behavioral than psychiatric in nature.

Rebuilding the residential treatment program will be a slow process, Warden said, and could start with one 12-patient unit at a time. That's compared with the seven units that were in operation last month, records show.

Despite the severe nature of the patients' conditions, many of the staff positions at the residential treatment center are entry-level and do not require prior experience, Sheehan said.

Still, the CEO said the company seeks to hire those with experience and it "exceeds state requirements for training of new employees."

Health Care Administration officials referred to high staff turnover in their report on Tampa Bay Academy, noting that of 36 staff members working one of the academy's seven units during one week, 21 had been there less than three months.

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com and (813) 226-3383.

Troubled Tampa Bay Academy lays off most of its workers 01/02/09 [Last modified: Saturday, January 3, 2009 9:18am]
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