Gov. Charlie Crist's reaction to allegations of decades-old child abuse at the former Florida School for Boys (now the Arther G. Dozier School for Boys) followed a familiar pattern. The stories were told, the public responded and the governor ordered an investigation. But the result so far, little more than a glorified audit of records pertaining to the school's cemetery by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, has been an utter disappointment. Thursday's deposition of one of the school's alleged former abusers was a reminder, once again, that Florida still hasn't determined the full truth about what happened at the isolated campus where the state warehoused wayward boys for the last century. Crist has a moral obligation to continue to respond to that challenge, be it through FDLE or some other means.
It was a band of former residents from 50 years ago, now calling themselves "The White House Boys," who pressed Crist to act in December. More than 200 former residents have signed on to sue the state — prompting Thursday's deposition of former houseparent Troy Tidwell. A recent investigation by the St. Petersburg Times found that individually and collectively, former residents' stories strike similarly horrible and chilling themes of physical abuse and possible death.
Grown men, many of whom have struggled to build a life in the wake of Dozier, told reporters life at the North Florida school could include strap whippings in a low concrete white building that left blood on the walls, and sexual abuse in an underground "rape room." Their accounts included witnessing boys trapped inside running clothes dryers, orders to dig child-size graves and friends who disappeared after being hauled off to the "white house."
But FDLE steered clear of much of that emotional testimony — and did not interview one of the key leaders of the White House Boys group. The agency took the most literal interpretation of Crist's charge to investigate the school's unmarked graves. Using official records and newspaper reports, which the agency conceded were incomplete and deteriorated, investigators said it appears that 31 people are buried there, all 31 appear accounted for in written records and no deaths appear to be suspicious.
But the agency didn't exhume any bodies nor utilize ground-penetrating radar to discern if more could be buried there. And while the agency acknowledges the written records made it impossible to ascertain the location of burial sites, it appears little weight was given to the fact that the official records would have been maintained by the alleged torturers themselves. The result is a report that reads more like a possible defense argument for the state than an investigation that considered alternative outcomes.
FDLE said it will continue to investigate allegations of abuse at the school. Crist should make it clear that the agency has broad discretion to take its investigation wherever it may lead. Individual testimonies make it clear that bad things happened at Dozier to many boys. Unfortunately, the FDLE's first report suggests the state needs to dig harder to uncover the truth.