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  1. Opinion

Florida's failure to protect children

Florida's systemic failure to protect children in unlicensed group homes from abuse has finally caught the attention of state leaders. The Department of Children and Families is showing good faith in trying to close what gaps it can in the state's child protection safety net. It's a start. But the real test of the state's commitment will come in March, when the Legislature returns to Tallahassee. Lawmakers need to ensure laws are changed to protect every child living in a group home.

The Tampa Bay Times last week published a series of articles by staff writer Alexandra Zayas that detail how Florida's privatized and porous regulatory system of religious group homes and so-called boarding schools allowed several institutions to flourish that repeatedly beat, ridiculed and isolated children. DCF began reviewing the unlicensed group homes after queries from Zayas.

Last week, the agency said it had discovered even more irregularities. At least seven "boarding schools" are operating in the state without any apparent credentials — meaning they have skirted oversight of how they treat their students. The agency said it had found at least 13 foster children in the past 11 years who — in violation of state law — were sent to an unlicensed group home at taxpayer expense. The agency's investigation is continuing.

The Florida Association of Christian Child Caring Agencies, the private agency that accredits group homes that obtain a religious exemption under an ill-advised 1984 state law, is finally considering tightening its child protection standards. For example, the group is moving to ban shackling and establish strict procedures for corporal punishment. But that's not enough. The revised standards would still fall below the state's requirements and no one, given FACCCA's enforcement record, should be satisfied.

Gov. Rick Scott, incoming Senate President Don Gaetz and incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford said the Times investigation has put the issue on their radar. The real test, however, will be if they do better by Florida's children than their predecessors. Twenty-eight years ago, at the behest of special interests, the Legislature carved out an exemption from state licensure for religious group homes but never checked back to make sure children still were being protected. Nor did it include boarding schools in child protection regulation. If a child lives in a group home or a boarding school in Florida, there should be no inconsistency in the basic standards expected of their caretakers. Scott, Gaetz and Weatherford should insist on it. Every Florida child deserves protection. Every single one.