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Florida governor signs bill compensating victims of abuse while children in state custody

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Florida governor signs bill compensating victims of abuse while children in state custody

Jun 21, 2024 | 3:53 pm ET
By Mitch Perry
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Florida governor signs bill compensating victims of abuse while children in state custody
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St. Petersburg-based state Sen. Darryl Robson (second from left) with some of the Dozier School for Boys victims in Tallahassee after the bill signing on June 21, 2024. (Photo by Darryl Rouson)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has approved a measure that will finally provide reparations for hundreds of men who as children were beaten and raped for decades while in the custody of the state.

The law (HB 21) signed by the governor on Friday morning will divide $20 million in compensation between those who attended the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in North Florida between 1940 and 1975, as well as the Okeechobee School, another state-based institution known for its abusive nature.

According to a bill analysis, there were reports of children being chained to walls in irons, brutal whippings, and peonage at Dozier as early as 1901. In the first 13 years of operation, six state-led investigations took place. After former Dozier School students began to publish accounts of the abuse, their complaints gained traction.

Ultimately, then-Gov. Charlie Crist in 2008 directed the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate the Dozier School and the deaths alleged there.

Meanwhile, the school was closed following a federal investigation in 2011 and lawmakers gave a formal apology to the survivors in 2017.

Florida governor signs bill compensating victims of abuse while children in state custody
Boys walking by dormitories at the School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, circa 1950. (Credit: Florida Memory, State Library and Archives of Florida)

Over those years, some of the still-living victims of rape and physical beatings by officers repeatedly made their way to Tallahassee to tell state lawmakers about the horrors suffered at those state-run institutions. They’ve been dubbed “the White House Boys” for the building on the Dozier campus in Marianna where boys were — among other abuse — beaten with a leather strap attached to a wooden handle.

Retired Army Ranger Capt. Bryant Middleton was one of those victims who made the trek to Tallahassee for years. Earlier this year, he told a state Senate committee not to think of him as the man in his late 70s, but as a young boy decades ago, when he and other boys endured abuse at the Dozier School.

“I would ask you: If it were your child that came home from school, your child said to you, ‘They took me to a room and beat me with a paddle.’ Your daughter comes home and says, ‘They took me into a room and they did something to me that made me uncomfortable.’ That’s what we endured,” he said.

“We were children”

Florida governor signs bill compensating victims of abuse while children in state custody
Richard Huntly and Bryant Middleton (right) spoke before a Senate Committee on Feb. 20, 2024 (Photo by Mitch Perry/Florida Phoenix)

“We were children.  Don’t look at me as an adult. Think of me as a young child being beaten and molested and tormented, day in and day out. That’s what the school was really about. The beatings? We got over those. Those children that were raped at the age 6 and 7 and 8 — I don’t think they over got over that.”

Somewhat surprisingly, the governor’s office invited no news reporters or cameras to the bill signing, although about 15 of the men who have regularly visited the Legislature to lobby for the measure were there, along with the legislators who sponsored the measure — St. Petersburg state Sen. Darryl Rouson and House Republicans Michele Salzman from the Panhandle area and Kiyan Michael from Jacksonville.

“It came down to a crunch, you know, the final tranche of bills, and I know he has a very busy schedule,” Rouson said. “The important thing was to get it signed, and that’s what happened.”

The bill is set to go into effect on July 1. Applications for individuals eligible for compensation will go to the state Department of Legal Affairs, which will review and approve or deny applications.

Florida governor signs bill compensating victims of abuse while children in state custody
Gene Luker is one of the oldest living “White House Boys.” He turns 80 next month (Photo by Mitch Perry/Florida Phoenix)

Applications accepted through year’s end

The law says that only those who were confined to the Dozier School for Boys or the Okeechobee School between 1940 and 1975 are eligible; personal representatives or estates of those who attended the school but have died “may not file an application for or receive compensation” the law says. Applications will be accepted until Dec. 31 of this year.

Although it has been frequently mentioned that there are approximately 400 living survivors of the two institutions who are eligible to be compensated, one of the survivors, 80-year-old Tampa resident Gene Luker, told the Phoenix after the measure passed in the Florida Senate in March that he believes that far fewer than that are still alive.

“I don’t believe that,” he said at the time of the higher number. “I think if there’s around 100-150 from that time limit” — although he joked that more might “come out of the woodwork” now that it looks more possible than ever that the living victims will receive financial compensation.

After the measure passed out of a Senate committee in March, Broward County Democratic Sen. Rosalind Osgood approached one of the men who testified for the legislation.

Florida governor signs bill compensating victims of abuse while children in state custody
Democratic State Senator Rosalind Osgood comforts Cecil Gardner after his testimony about the abuse he received at the Dozier School for Boys on Feb. 27, 2024 (Photo by Mitch Perry/Florida Phoenix)

“I’m deeply sorry for what happened to you,” Osgood said. “I know that no amount of money or no words can take away your pain, but I do want to tell you this morning that I love you. I love you. And I pray in the days to come that you will have at least a sense of peace and knowing that we care, and that we are doing the best we can to acknowledge that.”

Rouson has been pushing for the living victims at Dozier to be compensated for years. He said on Friday that he was “elated” after the governor signed the bill.

“It’s a poignant moment,” he said. “You can’t do anything about the 55 unmarked graves — individuals who we may never know. But we can do something about those still living, and who witnessed the trauma of beatings, disappearances, and injuries, both psychological and physical. It’s significant for them, and that’s why they showed up today.”

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Michael Moline for questions: [email protected]. Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and X.