Survivors of abuse at old reform schools in FL want compensation for sexual and physical abuse

By: - October 18, 2021 4:10 pm

Charles Fudge, survivor of abuse at former Florida reform schools, speaks out at a news conference in Tallahassee on October 18, 2021. Credit: Issac Morgan

Former students at reform schools in Florida’s Panhandle and the south central part of Florida on Monday recounted horrific experiences and abusive practices between 1940 and 1975, such as physical and sexual abuse.

At a news conference in the state Capitol, several victims of abuse that took place at the former Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna and the Florida School for Boys in Okeechobee described being raped, molested, and brutally beaten and perpetrated by school personnel, according to legislation filed by State Sen. Darryl Rouson and State Rep. Tracie Davis.

The lawmakers, once and for all, want to get compensation to the victims for the attacks. Rouson and other lawmakers have tried in the past to make amends.

The male survivors of the reform school abuses, who by now would likely be in their 60s, 70s and 80s, gathered in the Florida Capitol to tell their emotional stories.

Charles Fudge, one of several victims who spoke at a press conference, said he attended the reform school in Marianna from 1960-61 “as a 12-year-old boy” and has endured “severe pain over the years” from abuse at the school.

“We’re all old guys with [not] much time left and it would be nice to have a little compensation to take,” Fudge said.

Fudge, a white male, also told the Florida Phoenix that it was forbidden for white kids to interact with Black kids at the school, and that they were punished if that happened.

James Harley, another survivor, said at the press conference he had abused alcohol to deal with the trauma caused by the abuse. “I became an alcoholic and sobered up at 27. It has been a long journey,” he said.

A legislative analysis in 2021 showed that “more than 500 former students have come forward with reports of physical, mental, and sexual abuse by school staff.”

Now, Rouson, representing parts of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, and Davis, representing part of Duval County, are pushing for the legislation to be considered in the 2022 legislative session. The legislation would require victims to submit applications to the Department of State for certification as victims of Florida reform school abuse. The applications must be submitted by no later than Sept. 1, 2022.

Rouson said at the conference he is pushing for compensation for “these men” who have “suffered at the hands of state agencies.” The bill would provide “requirements for crime victim compensation eligibility for applications by victims of Florida reform school abuse.”

“We stand today in courage,” Rouson said. “As we stand here with the survivors, we can honor their struggle. By asking the state of Florida to do a little more than apologize.”

“It is our goal to ensure that this never ever happens in the state again,” Davis said.

According to legislation, the Dozier Schools was opened by the state in 1900 “to house children who had committed minor criminal offenses, such as incorrigibility, truancy, and smoking, as well as more serious offenses, such as theft and murder.” The Okeechobee reform school opened in 1955.

Many former students had sworn under oath that they were beaten “at a facility located on the school grounds known as the ‘White House,’ “according to the bill. And a former psychologist at the Dozier School said that boys at the school suffered severe beatings by an administrator using a “leather strap approximately 10 inches long.”

“This is a unique and shameful chapter in the history of the state, during which children placed into custody of state employees were subjected to physical, mental, and sexual abuse rather than the guidance and compassion that children in state custody should receive,” according to the proposed legislation.

During the 2017 session, the Legislature issued a formal apology to the victims of abuse. Lawmakers expressed regret “for the treatment of boys who were sent to the Dozier School and the Okeechobee School; acknowledging that the treatment was cruel, unjust, and a violation of human decency; and expressing its commitment to ensure that children who have been placed in the state’s care will be protected from abuse and violations of human decency.”

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Issac Morgan
Issac Morgan

Issac Morgan is a 2009 graduate of Florida A&M University's School of Journalism, and a proud native of Tallahassee. He has covered city council and community events at the Gadsden County Times, worked as a sports news assistant at the Tallahassee Democrat, a communications specialist for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and as a proofreader at the Florida Law Weekly.