With no traction in the Florida House, a bill aiming to help those who say they survived abuse at the infamous Dozier school for Boys appears to be dead.
As a teenager in the 1950s, Bryant Middleton—a former veteran—was sent to the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna.
“My name is Bryant E. Middleton, U.S. Army Ranger, retired,” he told a Senate committee last month. “I served our country for more than 20 years in peacetime, and I fought in the jungles of Vietnam as part of the army’s long range reconnaissance patrol. I am a survivor. I am a survivor of Dozier School for Boys.”
Over the course of a decade, many, like Middleton, have tried to share their stories with politicians about the physical and sexual abuses they suffered at the hands of staffers at the North Florida reform school and its sister campus in Okeechobee. Others did not survive and for decades, were believed to be buried in unmarked graves on the Dozier grounds—until some remains were uncovered by University of South Florida researchers a few years ago.
“I came here to Tallahassee 10 years ago, with three other men, just to simply ask the Governor to look into this, and since then, committee members such as yourself have stood up and said, ‘enough is enough with abuse toward children,’” he said, at the time. “Please, support this bill. Support Florida’s children.”
Speaking during last month's committee hearing, Middleton asked lawmakers to continue their legislative efforts to support White House Boys like him and other survivors. The so called “White House” building on the Dozier property is where many of the boys say the abuse occurred.
“I don’t come here to speak of the brutality, the physical, the mental, the sexual abuse—which was rampant at that school,” he continued. “I come to speak to you as a father and a grandfather. I have 15 grandchildren. Were one of those children mine, I assure you I wouldn’t be standing here. But, all I ask of you is to use your heart as parents, and support this bill.”
Sen. Darryl Rouson (D-St. Petersburg) says a bill he’s carrying builds on past efforts by the legislature over the last couple years to bring closure to victims’ families as well as survivors of the reform school.
“Two years ago, Sen. [Arthenia] Joyner and Rep. Ed Narain filed a bill that created a reinternment fund: $5,000 to those families of the deceased boys whose bones were found at Dozier by University of South Florida and discovered,” he said. “And, it allowed families to apply for up to $7,500 to reinter these young boys in the place of their choice.”
And, Rouson says last year, the Legislature then went a step further.
“The next session, both chambers recognized these atrocities and apologized to those men—who were boys—and suffered through this, we apologized to them for the atrocities and promised them nothing like this would ever happen again, while young men, young boys were in state custody,” he added.
Now, Rouson has a new bill he filed for the 2018 legislative session.
“This bill allows a registry, allows us to identify those who are yet living, and it would be a for a future legislature to determine whether or not it becomes a claims bill, whether or not we do something further for them, whether we pay it forward in terms of scholarships for their children, or something like that,” he stated. “So, this bill only seeks to identify those who are still living with these injuries, both physical and psychological.”
Representing the Holland and Knight law firm, former Republican Governor Bob Martinez called it a great bill. He’s been working with the White House Boys to get a lot of Dozier bills across the finish line.
“The apology that was given to those at Dozier and Okeechobee during this time period is greatly acknowledged by all,” said Martinez. “I think what this would do is make the apology almost to the individual, instead of the institutions. We know about Dozier, we know about Okeechobee, but we don’t necessarily of those who were there. And, I think this goes a long way to putting a face on what you’ve already done in terms of acknowledging the state did not act rightfully back in that period of time.”
The bill has so far passed two Senate committees, and it still has one more committee stop to go before it heads to the floor. But, since it has not been taken up in any House committees, Kim Case says it appears unlikely the bill will go anywhere in the less than two weeks left of this legislative session. She too is with Holland and Knight.
“I think that what we’re going to do is regroup after Session, meet with our bill sponsors—Sen. Rouson and Rep. Traci Davis—see if there is perhaps a another way to do it,” she said. “We set it up as sort of a certification process through the [Florida] Department of Juvenile Justice. But, we’re happy to see if there is another path. And, I think it’s important from the boys that have talked to us, they would love to pursue something next year. And, whether it’s a claims bill or some other type of certification process, I think we’ll be examining that and will probably go forward.”
For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.