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Jon Jefferson

Fact, fiction merge in juvenile justice horror

A while back, a journalist friend asked about the crime novel I was writing. The manuscript was due in six months, so he assumed I'd written much of it. He assumed wrong. "I know I want to set it in Florida," I said — I'd recently moved from Tennessee to Tallahassee — "but I haven't figured out the story. I don't know the crime yet."

My friend asked, "Do you know about the Dozier School for Boys?" I didn't. When I went home and Googled it, I was stunned to learn about the school's centurylong legacy of abuse and scandal: boys chained in irons, like 19th century convicts; boys burned to death in a locked building while their guards visited a Marianna brothel; boys as young as 8 flogged — up to 100 lashes — with a heavy leather strap; boys buried in a makeshift cemetery, beneath 31 pipe-metal crosses; another 50 dead boys buried who-knows-where.

Inspired by the horrors of this real-world "reform" school, I began writing The Bone Yard, set at a fictional school that had burned to the ground in the 1960s and never reopened. In the parallel-universe narrative of the novel, young murder victims begin turning up when a dog finds bones in the woods and brings them home.

From my research, I knew that physical abuse tends to breed sexual abuse, too, and in the novel, I ascribed the sexual abuse to the "Chicken Hawk Club": men who, in collusion with guards, take boys off site for sex. In the end, my book's anthropologist hero, working closely with FDLE — the Florida Department of Law Enforcement — unearths the school's dark secrets.

The easy thing about fiction is that you can rig the ending, catch the bad guys. The transcendent thing about fiction is that it can be a shortcut to truth — or even, if you're lucky, to Truth. Robert Straley, a Dozier abuse survivor who co-founded a support group for fellow victims, e-mailed me this after reading The Bone Yard: "Your book is what we wish would have happened — a real investigation." He also wrote, "You will never know how close to the truth the 'Chicken Hawk Club' is. … Boys were taken off campus (pretty boys) who always had new clothes and everything and no one messed with them, as they 'belonged to one of the staff.' "

I made the final corrections to The Bone Yard three months ago, and the book hit the streets March 8. End of story, right?

Wrong. Damned if Dozier hasn't gotten under my skin, along with the bigger issue of juvenile justice — or, rather, juvenile injustice: the horrific damage we do by locking kids up. One criminologist I interviewed (and transplanted into the novel) told me, "The best way to create career criminals is to bring kids into the juvenile justice system." Dozier and Florida's juvenile justice system prove it.

But now there's a surprising shot at real reform. As part of his take-no-prisoners assault on the state's budget, Gov. Rick Scott plans to slash tens of millions of dollars from the Department of Juvenile Justice, by closing or drastically shrinking juvenile detention facilities. Scott says we'll save $50 million next year by sending most juvenile offenders to community-based treatment instead of locking them up.

Strange bedfellows: I'm a staunch liberal — an ardent supporter of Planned Parenthood and Amnesty International — but on this issue I find myself applauding tea party darling Scott. So do some other lefties. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a pillar of liberal activism, strongly supports this approach; so do various conservative groups, including Florida TaxWatch and Right on Crime. It's unnerving but thrilling: tea party penny-pinchers and liberal crusaders in lockstep on how to reform Florida's disastrous juvenile justice system.

There's room for hope. But none for complacency. Dozier and facilities like it have successfully fought efforts to close them before, so the kids aren't out of the woods yet — not by a long shot. One other wistful comment Robert Straley sent me about Dozier, was, "Maybe someday it will be investigated, but not by the FDLE."

I suspect he's wrong. I suspect there's a lot of unfinished Dozier business, a lot of truth yet to be told. I don't feel done with Dozier yet; I don't think this newspaper's done with Dozier yet; and I don't think Florida and FDLE are done with Dozier yet. For all our sakes — especially the boys buried in the cemetery, and the 50 others whose whereabouts are not yet known — we'd better not be done with Dozier.

Jon Jefferson — collaborating with forensic anthropologist William Bass under the pen name "Jefferson Bass" — is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel "The Bone Yard," as well as five other crime novels.

Fact, fiction merge in juvenile justice horror 03/23/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 23, 2011 6:44pm]
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