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Abuse of Children Seen At Unlicensed Group Homes

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on Sat, 11/10/2012 - 11:47
Fight Child Protection Department Corruption: 
Abuse of Children Seen At Unlicensed Group Homes

Children were reportedly hurt at nearly a dozen Florida facilities.


They shaved him bald that first morning in 2008, put him in an orange jumpsuit and made him exercise past dark.

Through the night, as he slept on the floor, they forced him awake for more.

The sun had not yet risen over the Christian military home when Samson Lehman collapsed for the sixth time. Still, he said, they made him run.

The screaming, the endless exercise, it was all in the name of God, a necessary step at the Gateway Christian Military Academy on the path to righteousness.

So when Samson vomited, they threw him a rag. When his urine turned red, they said that was normal.

By Day 3, the 15-year-old was on the verge of death, his dehydrated organs shutting down.

Slumped against a wall, cold and immobile, Lehman recalls men who recited Scripture calling him a wimp. And he thought: Maybe, if I die here, someone will shut this place down.

Not in Florida.

In this state, unlicensed religious homes can abuse children and go on operating for years. Almost 30 years ago, Florida legislators passed a law eliminating state oversight of children's homes that claim government rules hamper their religious practices.

Today, virtually anyone can claim a list of religious ideals, take in children and subject them to punishment and isolation that verge on torture — so long as they quote chapter and verse to justify it.


The Tampa Bay Times spent a year investigating more than 30 religious homes that have housed children in recent years across Florida. Some operate with a religious exemption, legally regulated by a private Christian organization instead of the state. Others lost their exemption and operate with no legal accreditation at all.

Although most drew few complaints, nearly a dozen have been hounded by allegations of abuse. A review of thousands of pages of investigative files and interviews with dozens of former residents found:

State authorities have responded to at least 165 allegations of abuse and neglect in the past decade, but homes have remained open even after the state found evidence of sex abuse and physical injury.

The religious exemption has for decades allowed homes to avoid state restrictions on corporal punishment. Homes have pinned children to the ground for hours, confined them in seclusion for days, made them stand until they wet themselves and exercised them until they vomited.

Children have been bruised, bloodied and choked to unconsciousness in the name of Christian discipline. A few barely escaped with their lives. In addition, in two settled lawsuits, a mother said her son was forced to hike on broken feet; a father said his son was handcuffed, bound at the feet, locked away for three days and struck by other boys at the instruction of the home.

Adults have ordered children to participate in the punishment, requiring them to act as jailors, to bully troublemakers or to chase, tackle and sit on their peers.

Teens have been denounced as sinners, called "faggots" and "whores," and humiliated in front of their peers for menstrual stains and suspicions of masturbation.

Parents share the blame. Some sign away their children for a year or more without first visiting a home or checking credentials. But state officials bear some responsibility because they have not warned the public about programs they believe are abusive.

Florida taxpayers have supported some unlicensed homes with hundreds of thousands of dollars in McKay scholarships — a government program to help special needs students pay tuition at private schools.

In Florida, the vast majority of children's homes are regulated and inspected by the state Department of Children and Families. But under Florida law, a home can shield itself from that oversight by claiming a religious exemption.

Instead of state-trained child safety workers, these homes are regulated by the Florida Association of Christian Child Caring Agencies, a private, nonprofit group run almost entirely by the same people who run the homes.


FACCCA executive director Buddy Morrow said his organization condemns extended isolation, humiliation and the shackling of children. He also said the association aggressively monitors homes for abusive practices, but he refused to provide copies of inspection reports and other documentation.

In response to the Times investigation, he expects his board will strengthen restrictions on corporal punishment, limit seclusion and ban shackling.

Morrow would not talk about specific homes, but he said his association has revoked or refused to renew accreditation for at least three homes since 2005. Some continued to operate — without a state license or a religious exemption — the Times found.

At least four religious homes are accepting children without any legally recognized credentials. Foster children in state care have been illegally placed in at least two of those homes, the Times discovered.


In response, DCF officials have launched a statewide review to identify rogue children's homes and any state-dependent children who have been placed in them.

More must be done, says Robert Friedman, a psychologist and professor emeritus with the University of South Florida's Department of Child and Family Studies. Friedman founded an advocacy group to stop abuse in residential facilities and has given congressional testimony on the topic.

"For us not to be able to regulate these programs," he said, "for us not to be able to provide the oversight of these programs that's needed is just shameful.

"We don't know even the scope of the problem, and we allow these youngsters behind these closed doors."

For years the Florida Association of Christian Child Caring Agencies has listed its primary address as 2603 SW Brim St., a three-bedroom house in Lake City.

The agency's two full-time employees and two part-timers must process new applications and fan out across the state to monitor and investigate more than 20 Christian child care facilities.

Every year, association officials say, they check on the nearly 700 girls and boys whose parents have placed them in the homes. Many parents come to the homes in desperation, hoping religion or strict discipline can get their child off drugs or correct severe emotional problems.

"They've been through state-supported or state programs. None of the programs have worked for them," said Doug Smith, a former board member who runs Safe Harbor Maritime Academy with his wife. "And for some of these children, this is a last resort."

Parents who can afford it pay tuition that can reach $20,000 a year or more. Some must take out loans, dip into college funds, or accept scholarships provided by the homes. In addition, the state has paid more than $600,000 in McKay money to parents for use at FACCCA-accredited homes.

In Florida alone, unlicensed religious homes collected at least $13 million in 2010, according to available IRS filings.


Most of the homes pay a small portion of that income for membership in the Christian association. Those members get to vote on whether new programs will be granted a religious exemption.

Association leaders say they spend months vetting new homes. They visit multiple times and review a home's policies. They also are required by law to run a criminal background check on all employees. The head of the home must have at least a high school diploma and a few years' experience running a home.

There is no litmus test to determine whether a home is truly guided by religion. Morrow said FACCCA officials use their own judgment to determine that during inspections.

In the end, the association has a reason to stringently monitor its homes, officials said.

"We are here to help kids and our reputation of not helping kids hurts us all," Smith said. "So we're pretty reluctant to take someone that we're not really confident in. If we get a home that gets a black eye, we all get a black eye."


The Department of Children and Families takes complaints made against unlicensed religious homes when someone calls Florida's child abuse hotline. And it sends workers to investigate potential abuse and neglect.

But in the nearly 30 years since Florida began allowing religious exemptions, state officials have never tallied up how much abuse was occurring at the homes they stopped regulating.

The Times, in the first effort of its kind, requested public records noting abuse complaints for homes currently or formerly accredited by FACCCA. It also reviewed emergency dispatch records, police reports and court records.

The records show authorities have been called to the homes hundreds of times over the past decade for everything from runaways to suicide threats to child abuse allegations.

DCF alone has conducted at least 165 investigations into the mistreatment of children.

Its investigators found evidence to support allegations in more than a third of those cases — 63 incidents at 17 homes with a list of offenses that include physical injury, medical neglect, environmental hazards, threatened harm, bizarre punishment, inadequate supervision, mental injury, asphyxiation and sexual abuse.

Among the cases DCF "verified:" a 16-year-old girl in Orlando pressured to perform oral sex on a counselor she considered a father figure; a 15-year-old boy in Punta Gorda forced to lie facedown in the dirt for three hours as a 220-pound counselor lay on top of him; and a 16-year-old boy in Port St. Lucie, shackled for 12 days and berated by staff with racial slurs.


The most troubled programs are easy to see.

Of the 30 facilities reviewed by the Times, half had never been investigated by the state for abuse or neglect, and others had only a few, unsubstantiated allegations.

Seven facilities account for two-thirds of abuse hotline complaints over the past decade. Among them: Gateway Christian Military Academy, Camp Tracey near Jacksonville, Anderson Academy in Vero Beach, Southeastern Military Academy in Port St. Lucie and Lighthouse of Northwest Florida in Jay.

Several others, including New Beginnings Girls Academy, have few hotline complaints but show up in Internet message boards and "survivor" groups.


Jamie Lee Schmude said she was 16 when her parents sent her to New Beginnings to stop her drinking and pot smoking.

She recounts extreme punishments, including being forced to stand in one place so long she urinated on herself.

One day in 2003, she'd had enough. When she was made to stand at a wall for a deed she doesn't remember, she gave up and sat.

She said girls were ordered to take her to the preacher, who made them pin her to the ground as his wife unhooked a thin plastic rod from the blinds.

The wife started swinging.

"It didn't matter where she hit me," Schmude recalled. "I had bruises all over my butt and my lower back and my upper legs."