The Senate Criminal Justice Committee has voted to move forward with Sen. Darryl Rouson’s bill compensating victims of reform school abuse, already making more progress than last year’s bill, which died in the same committee.
The committee voted 7-1 on passing the bill to its next committee, with Sen. George Gainer voting against it. Gainer did not comment on his vote.
The bill, SB 288, would create a certification process for victims of abuse at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys and the Florida School for Boys at Okeechobee in order to streamline the claims process.
The bill would apply to people who attended the schools from 1940 to 1975.
A person claiming to be a victim of the reform schools must submit an application to the Department of State by Sept. 1, 2021, according to the bill. Those certified as victims could then file claims under a section of state law that provides assistance to victims.
According to the bill, more than 500 former students have come forward with reports of physical, mental, and sexual abuse by staff of the notorious Florida reform schools.
If the bill passes and the department certifies all 500 claims, the state could pay out a potential $1,845,780 — a number estimated based on claims payed out last year by the Crimes Compensation Trust Fund. Last year, the Attorney General’s Office paid on average $3,692 per payout.
This year’s bill now has two more committees before it’s heard in the full Senate — the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development, and the Senate Appropriations Committee.
And, this isn’t the first piece of legislation addressing abuses at the reform schools.
In those resolutions, the legislature acknowledged the treatment of boys who were sent to the Dozier School and the Okeechobee School as cruel, unjust and a violation of human decency after an investigation uncovering rampant physical, sexual and mental abuse. There were also inaccurate death records of boys who died while in custody at the school.
The state opened the Dozier School for Boys in 1900 in Mariana to house children who had committed minor offenses. Many of the boys sent to the school had been caught for things like truancy or smoking. Others were there for more serious offenses.
After opening, the school was the frequent subject of allegations of abuse, but wasn’t investigated fully until it failed an inspection in 2009. A subsequent investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement confirmed some allegations of abuse and violence in 2010 and the school closed in 2011.
As questions about the number of deaths at the school swirled, the University of South Florida oversaw a forensic anthropology survey that identified 55 burials on the school’s site, most of which were outside the school’s cemetery. In all, USF’s survey documented nearly 100 deaths that occurred at the school.