Politicians like to blame government bureaucracy for inaction. But in Tallahassee, it looks like bureaucrats are the only ones interested in protecting children in Florida's unlicensed or lightly regulated group homes.
Two months after a Tampa Bay Times investigation revealed how gaping loopholes in the state's regulatory structure had enabled unscrupulous operators to abuse and neglect children for decades, the Department of Children and Families is using what limited power it has to try to shut down one of the most nefarious operators and exert more influence over others. But legislative leaders so far have been silent on desperately needed broader reforms. Lawmakers need to begin examining reform options to prepare for the session that begins in March lest they send the message that Florida doesn't care if children are abused.
As the Times' Alexandra Zayas reported, DCF officials asked a circuit judge Friday to shut down an unlicensed Port St. Lucie children's home that for years has been allowed to operate despite evidence of abuse. DCF's 80-page petition includes evidence of more than a dozen incidents in which children were neglected, injured or otherwise mistreated while in the care of Alan Weierman, who has proven himself a master at exploiting the state's lax regulatory structure to skirt oversight. Weierman's current school, Southeastern Military Academy, is just the latest where his discipline practices have come under scrutiny — yet nothing has prohibited him from taking in children.
Weierman is far from the only bad actor. A state law passed nearly three decades ago at the behest of religious interests has left Florida with a privatized and porous regulatory system that does little to stop operators who repeatedly abuse children. Through dozens of interviews with former students and in reviewing thousands of pages of documents, Zayas documented that in some group homes children have been beaten, ridiculed, held down by their fellow students and subject to hours or days of isolation, among other indignities.
Prompted by Zayas' reporting, the Florida Association of Christian Child Caring Agencies, the private agency that accredits group homes that obtain a religious exemption under the ill-advised 1984 state law, has tightened some of its child protection standards. But given the group's indifference and lax enforcement in the past, no one should be convinced.
Only the Legislature has the authority to ensure Florida does better in the future for children living in religious group homes or boarding schools. Their caretakers should have to meet the same expectations as those running homes regulated by the state. Lawmakers should return oversight of all group homes to DCF, including giving the agency the authority to shut down abusive operators. House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz need to stand for all Florida's children.