A bill to help provide closure for families impacted by the now-closed Dozier School for Boys is now headed to Governor Rick Scott. That’s the former North Florida reform school surrounded by allegations of abuse and deaths over a span of decades.
Last month, the measure by Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner (D-Tampa) unanimously passed the Florida Senate.
“This bill is our opportunity to say to those families we share in your grief,” she said. “This will never be tolerated again in the state of Florida and the Florida Senate today says we apologize and this is the least that we can do.”
It had been smooth sailing for the Senate bill, but not so much in the House.
The House bill is carried by Rep. Ed Narain (D-Tampa).
“It allows the families of the deceased from the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys to be reimbursed up to $7,500 to conduct a proper burial,” he said. “It also establishes a task force to make recommendations for potential memorial and location at the site.”
Over the past couple of years, University of South Florida researchers had found 51 remains of boys on the Marianna property in 55 unmarked graves and have positively identified seven using DNA matches.
The costs for reburial efforts can be costly, and the Florida Cabinet also agreed to making sure there’s a memorial in place for the unclaimed remains.
Rep. Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala) is among those who like the bill.
“Department of Juvenile Justice has made tremendous gains, and I’ve even heard testimony of young men’s lives that were changed at Dozier,” he said. “But, there’s a dark stain that embarrasses and hurts all of us, especially the pain of these families. I certainly have the deepest of pain to think that on behalf of the state some atrocities went down there and that people were harmed, young children.”
But, Rep. John Tobia (R-Melbourne Beach) tried to lower the reimbursement to the families who want to rebury their loved ones remains’ to $2,000.
“So, I consulted a funeral director, asked how much this type of service would cost, was told it would be less than $2,000,” he said. “So, I said, ‘this makes sense that we should cap it at a reasonable amount. Just because a tragedy may or may not have happened does not mean the state should expend funds that we have places that can be used currently. And, that’s why I think $2,000 is a lot more reasonable than $7,500.”
Several Democrats questioned the need for the amendment, including Rep. Darryl Rouson (D-St. Petersburg).
“Isn’t it a fact that the bill only allows reimbursement up to $7,500 and it doesn’t actually give an appropriation of $7,500 to a family that applies,” he asked.
Tobia later agreed to withdraw the amendment, after Rep. Alan Williams (D-Tallahassee) asked him about whether he’d visited the Dozier grounds.
“Coming up with the analysis and the number that you put forth, have you had the opportunity to visit the Dozier School where these young men were laid to rest to understand what the cost would be,” asked Williams.
“I have had the opportunity,” Tobia responded. “Have I taken up that opportunity? Absolutely not. I drove by yet last weekend. I would be more than willing to go, and I’ll tell you what, at this juncture, I’d like to withdraw the amendment and take Rep. Williams up on the opportunity to get out there and visit the site.”
Still, calling Tobia’s earlier remarks naive and insensitive,” Narain says the bill is needed as a start to give some sort of closure to those families.
“According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Civil Rights division of the United States Department of Justice, more than a tragedy happened at Dozier,” Narain concluded. “In the eyes of any human being with a heart and a soul, the unimaginable happened at Dozier. So, I stand here to echo the sentiments of Leader Joyner, Attorney General [Pam] Bondi, [Agriculture] Commissioner [Adam] Putnam, and former Governor Bob Martinez when I say, ‘these boys that were placed in the state’s hands deserve better than unmarked graves. Their families deserve better than to be told they ran away.’ The restoration of human dignity begins with the passage of this bill.”
And, the measure passed the House 114 to 3, which included Tobia in the dissenting vote. And, with that, the bill now awaits the Governor’s approval.
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