Guess Which State Does the Worst Job Protecting Kids From Death, Abuse, Alleged Rapes? It's NOT The Site of This Graphic Video

Is Florida the most dangerous places in the country for children with disabilities, behavioral disorders or the sheer misfortune to be born into abusive families? That could well be the case, based on a series of troubling investigative reports.
11/14/2014 08:45 am ET Updated Jan 14, 2015

Is Florida the most dangerous place in the country for children with disabilities, behavioral disorders or the sheer misfortune to be born into abusive families?

That could well be the case, based on a series of troubling investigative reports in the Tampa Bay Times , Miami Herald and, last week, in Miami New Times pointing to lax oversight endangering Florida's most vulnerable children. These include 477 deaths of children supposedly being monitored by the state's child protection agency -- and a seriously flawed police investigation that helped keep quiet an alleged rape at a central Florida school for learning disabled youth.

Florida's infamous status as arguably the worst state in the country for protecting children remains intact. That's despite rivalries from dirt-poor Mississippi's brutally abusive approach to juvenile offenders and, in Virginia, the criminal convictions last month for the beating of a 14-year-old boy by four ex-staffers who worked at the fundamentalist Abundant Life Academy in rural Milford. The misdeed that spurred the assault: "talking to a girl" at the school. The lengthy attack in February was captured in a three-hour video first aired in part by WTVR in Richmond; the beat-down and other alleged abuses came to light in April when four students escaped from the unregulated school.

The Caroline County Sheriff's Department began a probe that also led the school's former program director, Nathan Daniel, to plead no contest to a charge of misdemeanor sexual battery for allegedly fondling the breast of a student during a hug, according to a spokesperson for the county prosecutor's office. The previous program director, Liam Gilligan, involved in the February beating was also charged in July with 13 counts of felony child endangerment but hasn't yet faced trial. None of the employees of the hard-line school faced any jail time after making their plea deals. (See UPDATE at end of this article for more details.)

Here's an excerpt of the disturbing video that prompted the four ex-employees to change their pleas to guilty for misdemeanor assault and battery:

But in Virginia, at least care-givers for children -- whether in institutional settings or in families -- seem to be more likely to get arrested and prosecuted for alleged wrongdoing than in Florida. In March, the Miami Herald's investigative team, led by Carol Marbin Miller and Audra Burch, began its horrifying series chronicling nearly 500 deaths of children loosely monitored by the state:

Ta'Vontae, the first to die, suffocated at 2 months of age while sleeping on a couch with his mother, Rachel Fryer, who later tested positive for cocaine. Child welfare authorities took Tariji from Fryer and put her in foster care. Then they gave her back, convinced Fryer had tamed her drug use and violent outbursts. Three months later, Tariji was killed with a blow to the head.

Fryer stuffed Tariji's body into a leopard-print suitcase, caught a ride and buried her 50 miles from her Sanford home. The girl's pink and white shoe, an unintended grave marker atop freshly turned dirt, was the only hint of her life and death. She would have turned 3 this month.

The twins joined a sad procession of children who died, often violently, after the Florida Department of Children & Families (DCF) had been warned, often repeatedly, that they or their siblings could be in danger.

They tumbled into canals and drowned, baked in furnace-like cars, were soaked in corrosive chemicals, incinerated, beaten mercilessly, and bounced off walls and concrete pavement. One was jammed into a cooler posthumously; others were wrapped like a mummy to silence their cries, flattened by a truck, overdosed and starved. An infant boy was flung from a moving car on the interstate. A 2-year-old girl was strangled by her mom's pet python.

These atrocities were made possible by the same pattern of apparent bureaucratic neglect and indifference -- although not leading to any deaths -- that seem to be at work on a smaller scale in the weak response of officials to alleged incidents of sexual and physical assaults at the private Vanguard School for learning disabled kids in Lake Wales, Florida, Miami New Times reported this week. (I wrote and researched the article with the backing of the Fund for Investigative Journalism.)

The lack of effective regulation of Vanguard and other residential facilities in the state has alarmed state Sen. Eleanor Sobel (D-Hollywood), the chair of the Florida Senate Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs. After reviewing information on Vanguard and failed state oversight, she declared this week after the New Times article was published: "The situation at Vanguard is awful and it is shameful. I don't care whether or not the government funds it: it should be required to be licensed, inspected and accredited." She added, "There are so many statutes on the books that are never implemented but this issue needs to be a priority by the legislature and fixed -- so that the law is implemented and clarified."

She and her colleagues in the Florida legislature, prodded by child advocacy groups such as Florida's Children First and the deadly scandals exposed by the Miami Herald, unanimously passed this year sweeping legislation designed to promote improved monitoring and greater transparency by DCF. But few -- if any -- of those reforms would affect the privately-funded students at the Vanguard School who attend at costs up to $44,000 a year, because they're not under state care or monitoring.

The New Times article focuses initially on the story of the flawed response to the alleged sexual assault by two males students of a 16-year-old girl in March 2011, named "Susan Jackson" in the article to protect her identity. For instance, Det. Mary Jerome of the Lake Wales Police Department allowed the school's president to help in questioning the suspects, which is not accepted practice. And cops closed the case the same day the rape was reported without obtaining any evidence supporting the suspects' alibis. (The Lake Wales Police Department declined to comment for this article. "We respectfully decline to make statements or to be interviewed about the investigation or former employees," Deputy Chief Troy Schulze told New Times.)

But with no one paying much attention, serious problems apparently continued at the school. For instance, on January 17, 2013, according to former teacher Gail Bonnichsen, a teenage girl was allegedly assaulted on the grounds by a student who jammed his hand inside her, causing vaginal bleeding. But staff on duty that night brushed aside the girl's concerns and didn't call police or seek medical help -- until the girl told Bonnichsen about it late the next day. Bonnichsen told New Times that she called a DCF abuse hotline and two local police departments, but the agencies never responded. "Nothing was done about it, and nobody gave a crap," Bonnichsen says.

Perhaps just as alarming, New Times reviewed a 21-page list of 911 calls from the Vanguard School to the county's emergency call center between November 2010 and September 2014, plus a list of the far fewer service calls and even fewer arrests by Lake Wales cops. They indicate dozens of phoned-in emergencies, including at least a dozen assault cases and other violent disturbances -- and some attempted suicides, all at a school that's not licensed or approved by the state to handle violent or seriously disturbed kids.

A blogger and children's rights activist based in Palm Beach County, Jillie Ryan, first discovered the disturbing allegations of sexual assault at the school. She learned from her sources that the Connecticut-based educational consultant advising the family of Susan Jackson, Marcia Rubinstien, had alerted colleagues on a listserv about dangers at Vanguard. Rubinstien was concerned about her client Susan's safety.

Rubinstien told New Times that she didn't call authorities because "the information I had was hearsay." Now, she says, "I would recommend that no child be sent there until the social environment is conducive to the safety of the student."

In a 2011 reply to a lawsuit filed by Susan's family, the school's attorneys denied negligence claims against the school. They also charged that Susan and her family were partially to blame for any harm to Susan by acting "negligently and carelessly" themselves. Despite repeated email and phone inquiries from New Times, school officials, including President Cathy Wooley-Brown, declined to answer any broader questions about student safety and the alleged failure to properly report crimes. Polk County-based attorney Richard Straughn, who represents the school, wrote, "The health, safety, and well-being of students are top priorities at the Vanguard School... Part of our commitment includes complete respect for the confidentiality and privacy rights of our students and families..."

But in the absence so far of real accountability, reforms have been slow to be carried out both by DCF and the far more obscure Vanguard School, which operates outside of public scrutiny or any government monitoring. Under the new law strengthening abuse investigations, the Florida DCF still self-reports its own progress, Sobel notes, rather than being tracked by any outside or independent investigators. So it's become apparent that the agency is still not following the spirit of this and other reform laws affecting child abuse passed in recent years. For instance, just last month, the Miami Herald reported that even after the legislation passed required public reporting of all abuse and neglect deaths, officials there have found ways to evade that responsibility with a neat Kafkaesque trick: They simply don't classify the deaths of many children under their watch as abuse or neglect. After highlighting such tragedies as a disfigured two-month-old who was suffocated to death after his family had been investigated 38 times, the Herald's Carol Marbin Miller wrote: "Even as the Florida Department of Children & Families has promised greater openness, [these] fatalities, and dozens of others like them, have never been counted among the state's victims of fatal abuse or neglect." She added, "But except for abiding by a new state law that required DCF to create a website listing all child fatalities, Florida has continued to undercount the number of children it fails."

Without facing meaningful accountability after the alleged sexual assault in 2011 and even in the face of the family's lawsuit, settled with a gag order on all parties last fall, Vanguard officials didn't change much, either. In miniature, this illustrates what happens when no one is ensuring that kids are protected.

In subsequent years after the Susan Jackson incident, relatively little was done by school officials to report to the DCF abuse hotline other alleged physical and sexual assaults, as apparently required by a tougher reporting law passed in 2012. School officials declined to answer allegations raised by former staffers that administrators discouraged them reporting such incidents to authorities.

Now, it turns out, the school isn't even complying with a mild state law requiring accreditation for residential safety by one of three state-approved national organizations, such as the Commission for Accreditation of Residential Facilities (CARF). That's been confirmed by all three accrediting groups, which say they're not evaluating Vanguard. The school has obtained the required academic accreditation. (It's not that hard to win residential accreditation: CARF itself under is under fire by critics, including a California legislative committee, for rubber-stamping approval of drug-treatment facilities where patients died. Even facilities in the notoriously abusive, now-shuttered Straight, Inc. "troubled teen" chain easily won CARF accreditation. The private accrediting agency, which is subsidized by the facilities it monitors, has defended its oversight.)

Unfortunately, the regulatory failures embodied by hundreds of deaths of children in a six-year span under the watch of the state's scandal-plagued DCF are a disturbing symbol of the broader national failure to protect children and youth from violence, abuse and sexual assaults whether they're in foster care, living with their own dysfunctional families or in institutional settings.

The allegations of trouble at Vanguard, for example, are mirrored at comparable facilities across the country. Private schools and residential programs for youngsters with an array of issues are part of a multibillion-dollar "troubled teen" industry. It includes thousands of facilities -- from boarding schools to wilderness camps to juvenile detention centers -- that house nearly 200,000 kids. They have not only learning disabilities but also emotional, behavioral, and addiction problems. Vanguard, though, doesn't employ the notorious "tough-love" approach common in many other teen residential programs. Tough-love tactics include sadistic punishments and harsh encounter-style groups designed to break troublemaking kids physically and emotionally.

The failed enforcement at Vanguard by local and state authorities is also shaped by some of the same economic forces driving the emerging scandal nearly 300 miles northwest of Lake Wales at the influential Florida State University in Tallahassee. There, recent investigations by the New York Times and other news outlets found an inadequate response by officials to rape allegations against Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston and other football players.

Jillie Ryan sees parallels with the "troubled teen" schools she has investigated. When she saw the Florida State headlines, she told herself, "Here we go again." She successfully fought for seven years to close down a Georgia "therapeutic boarding" school that her own teenager attended for six months that was facing mounting suicide attempts and abuse allegations. Now she says of such scandals, "Everyone goes into shock, but it's all the same: there's no oversight whatsoever. Everyone gets away with whatever they want." She adds, "Financial gain is the bottom line: These facilities 'plant' themselves in towns that rely on these facilities for the generation of business and jobs."

Regardless of the growing scandal over rape allegations at Florida State, no one is less protected than the 18-and-under kids in the youth programs across the nation that face virtually no meaningful state or federal oversight, according to the GAO and testimony before Congress in 2007 and 2008. As U.S. Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat, declared in 2007 at the opening of hearings on this ongoing but little-known crisis: "In far too many cases, the very people entrusted with the safety, health, and welfare of these children are the ones who violate that trust in some of the most horrific ways imaginable."

In Florida, that's certainly proved to be true. But what's especially discouraging is that the trust given to families, care-givers and government officials to keep children safe is still being widely violated despite new reform legislation passed in the Florida legislature in 2013 and 2014. The laws were passed in the wake of both a Tampa Bay Times investigative series, "In God's Name," documenting unregulated brutal Christian academies abusing kids and the Herald series on needless child deaths, but very little has changed on the ground.

Florida is especially notorious for its lax oversight of vulnerable children. Private schools like Vanguard are barely monitored. Outside of an easily obtained business license, they don't get the oversight normally given to public schools or even state-sanctioned residential group homes and detention centers that receive government funding -- but that have also been marked by their own shocking legacies of abuse. A Huffington Post investigation last year, for example, found that boys and girls held in licensed private prisons, boot camps and detention centers run by Youth Services International, especially in Florida, have frequently faced beatings, neglect and sexual abuse.

This past January, University of South Florida researchers announced the findings from a makeshift graveyard at the notorious state-run Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, which closed in 2011 after a long history of abuse and scandal. At least 96 children died at the reform school between 1914 and 1973.

Even after the Tampa Bay Times exposed in 2012 widespread patterns of brutality at unmonitored Christian academies, it's still business as usual in most programs. (A few closed due to bad publicity and declining enrollment, but not as the result of any government actions.) Some schools, such as the Gateway Christian Academy/Teen Challenge in Bonfiay that had seven abuse and neglect allegations confirmed by the lackluster DCF, the Tampa Bay Times reported, continue to operate outside even the state's minimal "religious exemption" loophole. If granted that exemption, religious schools can obtain cozy private accrediting by a private Christian association led by like-minded fundamentalists. In Gateway's case, this means being permitted by Florida to run their hard-line school while simply waiting to be accredited by the Florida Association of Christian Child Caring Agencies (FACCCA), a Gateway official explained to me. The Department of Children and Families began a preliminary investigation of those Christian schools that didn't bother to obtain the fig-leaf of accreditation by FACCCA, but that didn't lead the state to examine unlicensed secular schools such as Vanguard.

One sign that FACCCA hasn't been particularly tough on the schools they claim to "monitor": it wasn't until after the Tampa Bay Times series exploded that its leaders began drafting language that, in theory, would ban the shackling of students by their member facilities.

And this past September, the Miami Herald broke a story about a 14-year-old autistic girl from South Florida who died in July 2013 after being strapped to a bed for five days by staffers at the Carlton Palms Education Center in Mount Dora, where she had been vomiting and thrashing about with a high fever. Her death at the state's largest licensed residential center for severely disabled people sparked a state probe announced on the eve of the Herald going to press, and now DCF is seeking to block new admissions.

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There's still no federal response to abuse and neglect in youth residential facilities. Although the House of Representatives passed an oversight measure in 2008, the "Stop Child Abuse in Residential Programs for Teens" bill never made it through the full Congress. The hopes for any national legislation have faded along with the pending retirement of the leading advocate for federal oversight -- Rep. George Miller -- and the reluctance of Congress to pass tough new regulation of any industry.

Yet this entire troubled teen field has been marked by "thousands of allegations of abuse, some involving death, at residential treatment facilities across the country," the GAO reported in 2007.

As a result of all this, in most states in the U.S., schools and other programs for troubled teens-- some run by fundamentalist religious groups -- have continued to operate, despite allegations of abuse and neglect, including whipping, torture, solitary confinement, electric shock treatment for autistic children at the Judge Rotenberg Center in Massachusetts; alleged rapes at the now-defunct New Bethany Homes in Louisiana; and over 80 needless deaths in residential treatment since 2000.

Clearly, the allegations against Vanguard -- which has never been accused of either torture or causing deaths -- and other private programs for teens are hardly unique. Among the latest controversies in this field: a lawsuit filed on behalf of 350 families and "survivors" against a network of allegedly jail-like boarding schools in Utah best known by their acronym WWASPS, as the New York Times has reported; activist outrage about two purportedly needless deaths, including one suicide, at the controversial Diamond Ranch Academy that has aggressively counter-sued some critics and forcefully denied any maltreatment of students; and the recent Anonymous-backed social media campaign to shut down the allegedly abusive Logan River Academy in Utah that reportedly uses solitary confinement as punishment, a charge the school denies.

In Florida, despite the passage of laws in the last two years designed to create more transparency, better oversight and strengthen abuse investigations, critics don't see it likely that DCF's historically toxic culture of neglect, secrecy, and incompetence will be fundamentally reformed any time soon.

"Politicians won't care until their own child is killed or abused," Jillie Ryan says.

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UPDATE on Abundant Life Academy:

The recent scandals, ongoing investigations and criminal convictions at the Abundant Life Academy "therapeutic boarding school" illustrate once again the perils of failed oversight. In Virginia, no government agency oversees the school or inspects it, although it has been nominally accredited by the AdvanceED private organization. The school did need to win approval of the Caroline County Board of Supervisors -- divided over whether the troublemaking teens in the program posed a threat to neighbors -- to begin operating in the rural, deeply conservative county in the fall of 2013. The school moved from Utah, a state notorious for its weak oversight of the hundreds of controversial "troubled teen" programs that set up shop there, as The Huffington Post reported in 2012 as part of an investigation into the Bain-owned Aspen Education.

The Christian school, also operating as Xtreme Faith Academy in Nevada, Mexico and Utah under the previous owners, Craig and Wendy Rogers, faced a trail of unproven claims of abuse and neglect that has dogged it for years. That's according to allegations made by state child protection workers in Nevada in 2005, and by "survivor" websites such as Heal-Online, and graduates offering on-the-record testimony at the reporting-based blog, safeteenschools.org -- allegations all strongly denied by school leaders over the years.

One girl who gave a statement to Safeteenschools.org also was the apparent victim who claimed she was fondled by Nathaniel Daniel, the replacement for program director Liam Gilligan; Daniel pled no contest to the allegation and was required to undergo a sex offender evaluation and face supervised probation.

The Caroline County Commonwealth Attorney , Tony Spencer, explains that in both the misdemeanor sexual and physical assaults the evidence was seemingly too thin to assure a conviction of the suspects, among other problems with the cases, so plea deals without jail time were accepted.

Regarding the beating captured on video, Spencer contends, "The kid was not treated right, but on the other hand, there was no broken skin, no broken bones, no bruises. The defendants had no prior criminal history and [some] had served in the military. They needed to answer for their actions, but it doesn't rise to the level of a felony." He says the plea arrangement for the four-man assault was accepted for a few key reasons: "There was going to be something introduced in the trial by defense attorneys that was going to offer [highly damaging] criticism of the boy in open court," he notes, declining to cite the specific lines of attack. He adds about the plea agreement, "It was keeping with the family's wishes and in all likelihood the judge was not going to give these guys any active jail time. If we'd gone all the way through the trial, we wouldn't have been able to make this agreement," including bans on teaching minors. He also notes that the felony investigation of Gilligan continues.

Yet what's particularly striking is that neither state nor local officials seemingly bothered to do any rudimentary background research -- such as using Google -- on the abuse controversies swirling around Abundant Life Academy for years before the county supervisors granted it permission to operate in Caroline County last year as a potential boon to the local economy.

School officials in Virginia declined to answer questions about either the arrests and convictions of staff members or the ongoing criminal investigation into Liam Gilligan -- or the criticisms aimed at the school under the previous owners. Yet a source close to the school's administrators argues, "I think the culture of the place was a problem, but there's been a dramatic shift under the new owner," especially since the assault incidents earlier in the year. Despite tuition as high as $4,000-a-month for the roughly 35 students there now, "the school doesn't make money," the source adds, presumably due to high operating costs. The source also thinks that "it's an injustice" that the ex-staffers caught on tape beating the student didn't get jail time.

One of the new incidents still under investigation is the allegation that, as the Fredricskburg Free-Lance Reporter noted, "The students were forced to do military-style drills, such as barrel rolls in a swamp in 35-degree temperatures and then made to wash off in a lake, the [police] report said. Many of the students ended up getting sick as a result ." At the criminal trial over the staff assault on the 14-year-old boy, the defendants switched their plea from not guilty to agreeing to a deal of a 12-month suspended sentence for misdemeanor assault, along with bans on teaching minors from five to ten years. The attorney for three of the defendants proclaimed after they pled guilty four hours into the trial, "They are all good men and I don't think they ever meant to hurt the child." He added, according to the Fredricksburg Free-Lance Reporter, "His clients didn't get to state their case as to why they were restraining the teen. He said he would have argued that the teen was threatening to harm himself and others and would have produced testimony to show he suffers from a mental illness that wasn't known to the school when he first enrolled." The boy denied making any such threats.

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This post is adapted and updated from a longer, narrative investigative feature jointly published by Miami New Times and New Times Broward-Palm Beach, viewable in full here. Research for this article was supported by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.