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Legislation addressing abuse at unlicensed religious children's homes passes House after failed attempt to strip it down

A bill addressing some of the problems exposed by a 2012 Tampa Bay Times investigation into abuse at unlicensed religious children's homes passed the Florida House on Wednesday.

But not without an attempt by a Tampa Republican to strip it of proposed reforms applying to the Florida Association of Christian Child Caring Agencies, the private, nonprofit accreditor of homes that have chosen to take a religious exemption from licensing.

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The Department of Children and Families has no power to regulate or inspect these homes.

The bill proposed minor changes to the disclosure requirements that FACCCA has to make to DCF. It would:

- Add a 24-hour time-frame to the group's requirement to tell the state if it learns of statute violations at the homes that threaten harm to children. In current law, there is no defined time-frame.

- Tighten the time frame within which the group must notify the state of homes operating without legally-required credentials to three days. Current law gives the group 30 days.

- Give DCF the power to fine FACCCA up to $250 per violation of statutory requirements.

By the time the bill got to the House floor, lawmakers had already stripped additional reporting requirements which would have forced FACCCA to disclose the average length of stay of the children at each home and the number of home violations.

But Rep. J.W. Grant, R-Tampa wanted to go further and remove any new requirements of FACCCA, saying there was "some concern, given the lack of oversight, inefficiencies, with (the Department of Education) and (the Department of Children and Families.)"

Seventy-three state representatives, including Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, voted "Yes" on his amendment to remove the FACCCA requirements.

Last fall, Fasano made comments to the Times that the 1984 law allowing religious homes to be exempt from licensing should be re-evaluated.

"This is something that happened 30 years ago, and we're only hearing about it now and the Legislature has never looked into changing the law?" Fasano said in October. "Just that alone tells you that law needs to be changed."

When asked about his vote Wednesday, Fasano said Grant's amendment would have applied only to "orphanages," not to the homes in the Times investigation.

In reality, unlicensed homes under FACCCA oversight have included places parents pay to reform their troubled teens, including:

- The Lighthouse of Northwest Florida, where the head pastor admitted to the Times that when girls broke some rules, he kept them in a seclusion room for almost every waking hour for days. A dozen former residents spoke of a form of discipline and control in which the same troubled girls the program sets out to help were used to supervise, tackle, pin down and sit on other girls for periods some said lasted an hour or more. The Lighthouse closed early this year, not because it was shut down, but, in part, because of the impact the Times series made on enrollment.

- Camp Tracey, which has been the subject of a grand jury investigation and six sex abuse lawsuits. The lawsuits were dismissed, according to the plaintiffs' lawyer, because the statute of limitations had passed. Children there in recent years say they have been made to "crab walk," carry two 5-gallon buckets full of dirt, swallow soap and eat the cigarettes they were caught smoking. A gay boy said he was forced to use a hose as a shower and a bucket as a toilet. Home officials did not comment for the investigation.

- New Beginnings Girls Academy, which voluntarily moved to Missouri in 2007. Girls sent to the Florida campus say they were whipped with switches, made to hold others as they were whipped and made to stand in place for so long they urinated on themselves. Home officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment for the investigation.

Grant's amendment failed because 43 lawmakers voted "No." It needed two-thirds of the vote to be added to the bill.

One of the "No" votes came from Rep. Darryl Rouson, D- St. Petersburg, who questioned why Grant would remove the requirements.

Rep. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, who sponsored the bill with the Healthy Families Subcommittee, announced before the vote that Grant's was a "friendly amendment."

In addition to the FACCCA requirements, the bill passed with reforms of state boarding schools, clarifying accreditation requirements, increasing reporting requirements to the state and requiring background checks of every employee that comes into direct contact with students.

Among the so-called boarding schools the Times investigated was the Southeastern Military Academy, run by a self-proclaimed colonel with decades of allegations of physical and mental abuse.

The bill has not yet been heard on the Senate floor.