CLEARWATER — Caregivers at The Ranch, a residential group home for children with physical and developmental disabilities, sometimes had trouble getting one boy to go to bed.
So one of them would dress as the “bogeyman” to try and scare him to bed, according to a lawsuit filed in Pinellas County against The Arc Tampa Bay, a nonprofit group that runs the home. Other staff repeatedly warned the boy the bogeyman would attack him if he didn’t comply, the lawsuit states. A video of one interaction was taken and shared by one staffer.
Caregivers also used “bizarre and traumatizing disciplinary methods” including tying the boy’s hands, the lawsuit alleges. It does not give his name or age but states that he has suffered from night terrors and anxiety.
The Arc’s executive director, Brian Siracusa, declined to comment on specific allegations, but acknowledged that five members of staff were suspended and then fired after the Florida Department of Children and Families conducted an investigation into allegations that a child was mistreated. No criminal charges were brought against the employees, he said.
“Once the individuals were reported to DCF, an investigation began, they never stepped foot in the house again,” Siracusa said.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the boy’s parents by Sarasota attorney Damian Mallard, is seeking damages in excess of $100,000. It states that the boy required medical and mental health treatment and that the parents had to relocate the boy to another home.
It also accuses the Arc of negligence in failing to protect children from further abuse once they learned of the mistreatment. The boy stayed at The Ranch over an almost three-year period through October 2019.
Mallard did not return a call or email seeking comment. Kathy Miller, the chief operating officer of the Mallard Law Firm, declined to comment.
The Arc, which was established almost 60 years ago, serves close to 300 individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities each day. Until 2015, it was known as the Upper Pinellas Association for Retarded Citizens.
The group operate 18 group homes in Pinellas County. Their residents are encouraged to be part of the community where they live through activities like attending church, baseball or visits to Busch Gardens.
To work at one of the homes, employees must pass a Level II background check and complete training that includes instruction about Florida’s zero tolerance laws for abuse and neglect of elderly or disabled people, Siracusa said. The behavior alleged in the lawsuit “would not be any practice that we would teach or endorse.”
“Staff receive training in behavior and not to employ any aversive or punishing tactics,” he said.
Siracusa declined to comment on whether his group would contest the allegations in the lawsuit.
“Our agency remains committed to the 275 individuals we serve every day and indebted to the 200 hard-working employees who act in a way that promotes a dignified experience for all the participants in our programs,” he said.