Last week, the Florida House formally apologized to the former wards of two now-closed reform schools for the abuse they say they suffered. Now, the Florida Senate is now doing the same.
“It begins with an apology, and I apologize,” said Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, apologizing to former wards of the Dozier School for Boys during a Florida Cabinet meeting last year.
The now-grown men who went to North Florida reform school as juveniles in the 1950s and 1960s say they suffered severe beatings and sexual abuse at the hands of staffers.
It took nearly a decade to bring this issue to light, and Putnam was instrumental in helping bring this issue to the Cabinet in recent years.
“And, I don’t think it takes an act of the legislature to say what needs saying, which is ‘I’m very sorry for what these men and these generations of men endured while wards of the state.’ It was unconscionable,” he added.
But, the Florida legislature did decide to act this year. Last week, the Florida House formally apologized to the victims of Dozier as well as those who say they suffered similar abuses at its sister campus in Okeechobee. House Speaker Richard Corcoran has made this one of his priorities this year.
“And, I think what we’re doing is a good solid minimum first step [with] the resolution to apologize on behalf of the legislature,” said Corcoran, during a press conference earlier this month. “I cannot say with enough heartfelt remorse that it’s taken this long for our legislature with all the evidence that’s before us to come forth and apologize for what has to be one of the blackest moments on our state’s history, and as much as we apologize for the grave injustice that was done to these now men, but young children, we hope that there will be some degree of healing and closure that can take place, knowing that it’s being recognized. But, the most important part is that if never happens again to anybody else at any time in our state’s history.”
And, Wednesday, the Florida Senate followed suit with an apology of its own. As with the House resolution, Dozier survivors and their families watched from the Senate gallery as Sen. Darryl Rouson (D-St. Petersburg) read the apology
“This resolution declares that the Senate regrets the treatment of children at the Dozier School for Boys, that it was cruel, unjust, and a violation of human decency, and acknowledges this shameful past in our state’s history,” he stated. “This resolution on behalf of the Senate apologizes to these men, yet living, to the boys known and unknown in their remains, we say to you, ‘we apologize, we are sorry.’”
The reform schools’ survivors were also individually recognized, and after all the Senators signed on to co-sponsor the apology expressing their regret, they gave a standing ovation.
Meanwhile, the House has passed a bill which includes memorials in Tallahassee and Marianna for the boys believed to have died from the abuse and were buried in unmarked graves on the grounds. Through DNA matches, University of South Florida researchers led by Erin Kimmerle in recent years helped reunite some of the 55 remains they unearthed with the boys’ descendants.
Many of the Dozier survivors, including Jerry Cooper, also helped to get that bill passed. Cooper is the head of the so-called White House Boys—named for the building where former wards say a lot of the abuse occurred.
“A lot of the men, the White House Boys, a lot of them have passed over the last three to four years,” he said. “I hope this closure comes as quickly as it can because like I said, we don’t have that kind of time.”
Kim Case with Holland and Knight has helped represent the White House Boys through this legislative process. She says with no Senate companion, she’s working to see if the Senate will take up the House memorial bill—expected to cost $1.5 million.
For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.