Legislature toughens rules for unregulated children's homes

Published May 4, 2013

TALLAHASSEE — In the last gasps of the 60-day legislative session, lawmakers moved to impose new requirements on unlicensed children's homes Friday after a Tampa Bay Times investigation uncovered abuse last year.

A priority of House Speaker Will Weatherford, HB 7129 passed the Senate and House and is on its way to Gov. Rick Scott.

It was the last bill lawmakers passed and was entangled by unrelated amendments added at the last minute.

The bill "was important to us," said Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. "We wanted to make sure that took place before session came to a close. We're glad that the Senate worked with us, and we brought it in for a landing."

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, and Rep. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, adds more oversight of religious homes and boarding schools, some of which the Times found flew under state scrutiny or remained in operation after the state cited them for violations.

The measure makes modest changes to disclosure requirements for the Florida Association of Christian Child Caring Agencies, the private, nonprofit accrediting group for homes that have opted to take advantage of a religious exemption from licensing.

The Times investigation uncovered cases of troubled teens sent to homes where former residents said they faced severe punishments, including being kept in secluded rooms for days, tackled and sat on by other residents, forced to eat cigarettes they were caught smoking, whipped with switches and forced to stand up so long they urinated on themselves.

Under current law, the Department of Children and Families does not have authority to regulate or inspect the unlicensed homes.

Among other changes, the bill adds a 24-hour reporting requirement for FACCCA to inform the state of incidents at homes that threaten harm to children in violation of state law; reduces from 30 days to three days the time for which FACCCA must tell the state of homes operating without legally required credentials; and allows DCF to find the group up to $250 per violation for failing to comply with state policy.

The bill also makes changes to boarding school regulations. It clarifies accreditation requirements for the schools, adds more reporting requirements to the state and mandates background checks of employees or contractors that deal directly with students.

The reforms bounced back and forth between the chambers as lawmakers worked toward a final compromise. Joyner allowed senators to add three amendments to the bill, one of which stalled its passage.

The amendment, dealing with neighborhood improvement districts, was opposed by House Republicans and stripped from the bill.

The House approved the measure 110-6 before sending it back to the Senate, where members approved the bill unanimously.