December 2012 Church & State | People & Events

Nearly a dozen religiously affiliated homes for troubled youngsters in Florida have been accused of engaging in abusive practices, but nothing is being done because the state does not regulate the institutions.

The abuse came to light after a year-long investigation by the Tampa Bay Times. The newspaper examined 30 homes that operate in the state with religious exemptions. It scrutinized complaints that have been filed and interviewed former residents of the homes.

Among the abuses chronicled by the newspaper:

• Corporal punishment is wide­spread. Homes were accused of forcing children to stand for hours, denying them access to bathrooms and putting them in solitary confinement.

• Children have been beaten until they bled. Some were forced to do exercises until they passed out.

• Teens at some camps have been called “sinners,” “faggots” and “whores” and punished by other teens for alleged rule-breaking.

According to the Times, there have been 165 allegations lodged against the homes over the past 10 years. But no homes have been closed, even if evidence of abuse is corroborated.

The homes are able to dodge oversight because 30 years ago Florida legislators voted to lift virtually all regulations on religious homes. Owners of the homes had complained that the regulations stifled their ability to operate.

Today the homes, many of which operate on a quasi-military model, are essentially unaccountable. Some even receive taxpayer support through a state-run voucher program for special-needs students.

Most homes for children in the state are regulated by the Department of Children and Families. But a home can easily get around inspections by claiming a religious exemption. Homes that elect to do this are put under the oversight of the Florida Association of Christian Child Caring Agencies.

Critics say that’s of little use since the association is a private group made up of religious home operators.

Buddy Morrow, executive director of the association, told the Times his organization opposes abusive practices such as isolation and shackling of children. He also claimed that his group monitors homes for abusive practices but would not provide further information.

Critics said more must be done.

Robert Friedman, a psychologist and professor emeritus with the University of South Florida’s Department of Child and Family Studies, has formed an advocacy group to speak out against abuse at the homes.

“For us not to be able to regulate these programs, for us not to be able to provide the oversight of these programs that’s needed, is just shameful,” Friedman said. “We don’t know even the scope of the problem, and we allow these youngsters behind these closed doors.”

The homes are often seen as an option of last resort for some parents whose children are violent or addicted to drugs and alcohol. The Times reported that about 700 children are placed in the homes every year.

Tuition can top $20,000 a year, and running the facilities can be a lucrative business. The Times reported that unlicensed religious homes collected at least $13 million in 2010. 

The Times used public records to determine how many times authorities have been summoned to unregulated religious homes. Reporter Alex­andra Zayas noted that state officials have “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.”

Despite this evidence, no religiously affiliated homes have been closed.