The Florida House's proposed solution for ensuring children are not abused in religious group homes and fly-by-night boarding schools is not as ambitious as it could have been given the documented atrocities. But Speaker Will Weatherford deserves credit for tackling an issue that too many state officials have been willing to ignore. The House should approve at least this plan to increase oversight of such institutions and encourage the Senate to embrace it.
This is the reality in modern Florida: Rogue operators of religious group homes or boarding schools can be cited multiple times by the Department of Children and Families on allegations of abuse or injury. They also can ignore requirements to get licenses or accreditation for years but still operate and take in children. Just last month, a state judge gave Alan Weierman another 16 months to run his unregulated Southeastern Military Academy. This after a decade of ducking regulation, after Weierman surrendered his state license, and after an alternative privatized regulatory agency had stripped him of its accreditation. His is just one story that the Tampa Bay Times' Alexandra Zayas unearthed last year as she examined the welfare of children residing in facilities that are largely unregulated by the state.
Ideally, Florida should abandon its three-tiered regulatory system that has the Department of Education overseeing boarding schools, DCF overseeing state-licensed group homes, and a privatized regulatory agency that has a lackluster enforcement history overseeing religious group homes. Instead, the House Healthy Families subcommittee proposed last week to only tighten certain provisions of the law. That will hopefully eliminate the blind spot that allows individuals like Weierman to operate, and will hold a private regulatory agency to better account.
State law already requires boarding schools to obtain accreditation within three years of opening — though DCF and DOE have found it hard to enforce the provision, as in Weierman's case. The House bill would require unaccredited boarding schools to report annually to both agencies on accreditation progress, giving authorities a better shot at shutting down rogue operators for noncompliance. Boarding schools also would be required to conduct criminal background checks on all employees or vendors who have contact with students.
The House bill also would tighten reporting requirements on the Florida Association of Christian Child Caring Agencies, which for nearly three decades has regulated religious group homes. There have been shocking lapses, including a recently shuttered Panhandle school where girls were routinely kept in isolation for hours. The bill would require the agency to notify DCF within 24 hours of incidents that endanger children and within three days when a group home falls out of regulatory compliance. The bill also would establish a $250 fine when the agency fails to meet those deadlines.
The House bill would enable Florida to keep a decentralized regulatory structure that opens the door for irregular enforcement that can jeopardize children's safety. Nonetheless, it is an improvement over the status quo.