Editorial: Step up to protect children

Girls listen to a sermon during a church service at Lighthouse of Northwest Florida in the small town of Jay. The facility is shutting its doors.
Girls listen to a sermon during a church service at Lighthouse of Northwest Florida in the small town of Jay. The facility is shutting its doors.

The state of Florida long ago should have shut down the Lighthouse of Northwest Florida, a so-called Christian reform school whose operators have been accused of child abuse. Instead it took a Tampa Bay Times investigation to finally help trigger this week's closing. That highlights the need for better state oversight of institutions entrusted with the welfare of children. With the 2013 legislative session weeks away, Gov. Rick Scott, House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz should push to repeal a 1984 state law that prevented rigorous regulation of Lighthouse and similar institutions accused of abusing their charges. All of Florida's children deserve protection.

Lighthouse head pastor Russell Cookston told Times' reporter Alexandra Zayas this week that her October series of stories that exposed students' charges of abuse there led to a decline in enrollment. The enrollment drop prompted the school's landlord to decide to put the 9.7-acre property in the tiny town of Jay up for auction. The investigation by Zayas uncovered decades of abuse allegations against Cookston and the school's landlord and founder, Michael Palmer. The two men had ties to a Mexico school shut down by the Mexican government after abuse allegations. And before that, in the 1980s, Palmer had run afoul of California regulators for operating an unlicensed girls school where a student died on a campus construction site and others told officials of being locked for days in solitary confinement, forced to listen to recorded sermons.

Former Lighthouse students told Zayas of similar solitary confinement at the Florida school and of physical takedowns in which several girls would be ordered to restrain another by sitting on her. At least one Lighthouse student has accused Palmer of sexual assault. He was never formally charged, but amid allegations he turned over the school's day-to-day operation to Cookston.

Sadly, Lighthouse is just one of the religious group homes or unlicensed boarding schools with questionable practices exposed in the Times investigation. Since the articles, state bureaucrats have attempted to crack down on illegal boarding schools, and the Department of Children and Families is investigating how some foster children were placed in unlicensed religious group homes. The Florida Association of Christian Child Caring Agencies, the private agency assigned under state law to regulate religious group homes, has also amended its rules to limit how long a child can be kept in seclusion and banned the use of handcuffs and other restraints.

Yet little is known about the welfare of children living in lightly regulated or unregulated facilities, and too frequently even parents are in the dark about what happens to their children there. The governor and legislative leaders should push to repeal the 1984 exemption for religious groups and enact more oversight of boarding schools so that children at both kinds of facilities are protected as well as those in state-licensed homes. Scott, Weatherford and Gaetz need to stand for all the state's children and against abuse.