Bill To Help Families Impacted By Dozier Includes Some New Changes

Feb 11, 2016

Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner (D-Tampa) speaking during the Dozier bill's second committee hearing in the Senate Thursday.
Credit Florida Channel

A bill seeking to help the families impacted by the now closed Dozier School for Boys is still gaining traction in the Senate. And, the measure now includes some new changes.

Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner (D-Tampa) is sponsoring the measure related to the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna—a former North Florida reform school with a troubled past.

“It has come to light that the reform school era was rife with reports of physical and psychological abuse of children by staff at those facilities,” she said. “There was a small white building on the grounds where alleged atrocities occurred including severe beatings which allegedly resulted in deaths. That building was dubbed the White House. While there’s documentation of problems of the operation of the school and treatment of its residents, former residents have also alleged that sexual abuse occurred.”

Alleged abuse survivors have come forward calling themselves the White House Boys. Among them is Jerry Cooper, who says as a teenager, he passed out, after he was beaten more than 130 times in one night.

“Such a basically ugly situation for the state of Florida,” said Cooper.

Cooper recently spoke before the Florida Cabinet, after they heard a final report about the Panhandle property. Over the past few years, University of South Florida Researchers excavated 55 unmarked graves and found the remains of 51 people. And, through DNA matches, they’ve identified seven boys.

But, a majority of the remains have still not been identified and Cooper says he knows there’s more unidentified remains buried on the property that will probably never be found. And, he says that’s tragic.

“I don’t know what happened at Marianna,” he added.  “We don’t even know who these children are, except through scientific and DNA analysis and I would like to say, being a soul that stayed there back in 1960s, that’s probably the thing that most disgusts me about the whole situation at the Florida Industrial School or the Dozier School is not taking care of those children, after they died.”

The researchers’ goal is for families to be able to rebury their loved ones, and that’s expected to cost up to $7,500 dollars each. And, Joyner’s bill aims to compensate or reimburse those families.

“With this bill, we are providing certainty to the families that they can bury their children with the dignity any of us would want for our own, without having to worry about not having the funds to do so or having to depend on the whims of charity,” said Joyner. “This was a tragic and unfortunate situation in Florida’s history and this is a small step towards rectifying that.”

Her bill also sets up the “Dozier Task Force” to come up with a memorial for the unclaimed remains as well as figuring out the memorial’s location.

“The task force will recommend an appropriate memorial and will come back to you next year for funding for that memorial,” she added.

Joyner changed her measure Thursday to outline the makeup of the eight-member task force, which will include former wards of the Dozier School for Boys, Jackson County commissioners, and a family member of one of the boys who died identified through DNA. They’ll also include an NAACP member as well as someone from the Florida Department of State, who will serve as the chair.

Originally, the bill also required the preservation of historical resources and artifacts recovered from Dozier to be transferred to the Florida Department of State. But, Joyner changed that, at the Secretary of State’s request.

“The amendment clarifies that the historical resources and records will continue to be properly archived, preserved, and maintained where they are now at the University of South Florida, until such time as the Department requests custody,” she continued. “So, this will relieve the Department from having to find space and appropriate accommodations for the materials, until such time as they are ready for it.”  

One last change allows for the University of South Florida researchers to continue their work in identifying the exhumed remains and matching them with next of kin using DNA.

And, the measure passed unanimously Thursday in the Senate Budget panel that looks into Transportation, Tourism, and Economic Development issues. It now has one more stop before heading to the floor.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.