A bill opening the door to allow survivors of the infamous Dozier School for Boys to be later compensated unanimously passed its first committee Monday. That’s the now-closed North Florida reform school where former wards say they were physically and sexually abused decades ago.
After Florida lawmakers last year formally apologized for the atrocities that occurred at Dozier, it struck a chord with Jerry Cooper.
“We as the White House Boys are grateful. It took 10 years, but we are grateful, and it means so much for us for that to have happened,” he said.
Cooper is the President of the so-called White House Boys—a group of former wards of the school who say they suffered abuse at the hands of Dozier staffers in Marianna. Some say they received bloody beatings, while others say they were raped in a building known as the “White House.” Others at Dozier’s second campus in Okeechobee say the same.
Those who did not survive the abuse were buried in unmarked graves uncovered several years ago by University of South Florida researchers. Of the remains found, only a few were identified through DNA.
It’s why Cooper says he’s glad he was placed on a task force in 2016 to help create a memorial to remember those not identified as well as rebury them as well.
“I want to thank also the state officials that I have worked with on the reinternment on the young boys that could not be identified at Dozier,” he added. “And, I think only 6 out of 55 have identified through DNA. We as the White House Boys are the only family that these kids have now, and we don’t even know their names.”
Now, in the next chapter of the Dozier saga, Cooper says he’s backing a new bill by Sen. Darryl Rouson (D-St. Petersburg)—who filed the formal apology bill in the Florida Senate last year.
“It was a powerful moment when this apology passed unanimously by the entire chamber,” said Rouson. “Senate Bill 1780 is the next step in their quest for justice.”
So, what does his bill do? Rouson calls it the “Arthur G. Dozier School and Okeechobee School Abuse Victim Certification Act.”
“This bill will provide an opportunity for boys who attended the Florida reform schools in the 1940s through the early 1970s, and who were subjected to physical and/or sexual violence by staff to submit an application to the state of Florida for a Victim Certification Process,” he added.
Applications sent in by Dozier victims must be submitted to the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice—which oversaw the former facilities. Applications must be submitted by October 1st of this year, and DJJ will have until February of next year to complete the review.
“Any applicant that meets the requirement will be certified as a victim of Florida reform schools abuse. We believe this certification process will provide the Legislature with a clearer picture of who the living victims are, those who yet walk amongst us, living with physical and psychological injuries, so that we as policymakers can make an informed decision—and future legislature—about any claims relief,” Rouson continued.
As a funeral director, Sen. Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala) says he’s glad the legislature is not only able to help the deceased victims, but those still living as well.
“You know, my entire adult life has been about helping families properly and dignified way honor those who come before and endure things in life, the hardships and heartaches of their time, and injustices,” he said. “And, I certainly want to be a part of that, and it’s with a sad heart that such a thing should need to happen, but it’s with a joyful heart that it can still happen, even if it takes a while.”
And, while he voted in favor of the bill, Sen. Rob Bradley (R-Fleming Island) says he’s not sure the bill gives DJJ officials enough time to process the applications. According to Rouson’s bill, DJJ must notify the applicant of its certification decision within five business days after processing and reviewing the application.
“I want to make sure that as it moves through the process, that this process is true to the vision of making sure that every part of the record is done thoroughly, with academic support, and with integrity,” he said. “And, so, I look forward to having continued discussions and supporting this bill today with all those—like myself—who are very concerned that we recognize what happened here and handle it correctly.”
And, Rouson says he’s willing to work with Bradley to ensure a much smoother certification process. And, after passing the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, the measure has two more stops before heading to the floor. Meanwhile, its House companion measure has not yet had a hearing.
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