An ugly truth about Florida in the 21st century: Children are beaten, abused and traumatized at lightly regulated or unregulated group homes across the state, and government repeatedly turns a blind eye. This horror has its roots in a law passed more than a quarter-century ago at the behest of a special interest under the guise of religious freedom. It is past time for the Legislature to take responsibility for this travesty and stand up for all of Florida's children.
Laws governing so-called religious group homes for children are so lax in Florida that an individual who professes to hold religious ideals can take in children, subject them to abuse and isolation that was long ago banned in state-licensed facilities, and still keep operating even after it is discovered by authorities. As the Tampa Bay Times' Alexandra Zayas detailed Sunday, today and in a final story coming Tuesday, a 1984 state law effectively shifted oversight of such homes to the private Florida Association of Christian Child Caring Agencies, resulting in a feckless regulatory structure against a cadre of enterprising and sometimes sadistic operators. And other homes aren't even on the radar, Zayas found, because they are not licensed by the state or accredited by FACCCA and just slip through the cracks.
Through dozens of interviews with former students and in reviewing thousands of pages of documents, Zayas found repeated cases of children beaten, ridiculed, held down by their fellow students and subject to hours or days of isolation. She witnessed a forced eating that led one boy to vomit and another to gag; found a case of a 12-year-old boy who had been forced to hike on broken feet; and another teenager who nearly died from the complications of dehydration after hours of exercise.
As her article today on Southeastern Military Academy in Port St. Lucie detailed, an operator can work the system for years to avoid serious scrutiny. Alan Weierman has jumped from being state licensed to holding a religious exemption to a whole other category of simply registering as a boarding school with the Florida Department of Education. And despite repeated interventions on behalf of individual students, Weierman's academy remains open and collects $28,600 in tuition for each student.
The result is no one in state government knows how many children — including foster children whose tuition is underwritten by taxpayers — live in these lightly regulated or unregulated facilities. And sadly, by the very nature of the resident population — often troubled children with emotional, behavioral or substance problems — their most logical advocates for exposing abuse are often in the dark themselves. The group homes routinely cut communication between the troubled youth and parents for weeks at a time. And many parents could be forgiven for assuming that the facilities have to follow the same child protection standards as state-licensed institutions.
Even before the Times published these articles, Zayas' probing has prompted consideration of changes by the Christian accreditation group and state regulators. But it is too little, too late, and too many lives remain at risk.
Nothing but a full retreat from this flawed, privatized and porous regulatory structure would begin to fix the system. When the Legislature returns to Tallahassee in March for its annual session, it needs to stand up for all of Florida's children and return oversight of all group homes to the Department of Children and Families, including giving it the authority to shut down abusive operators. Anything less would continue to tacitly embrace the barbaric abuse of children.