Unlicensed religious children’s homes have collected more than $600,000 in Florida McKay Scholarship money, according to a year-long investigation by the Tampa Bay Times.
The scholarships allow students with disabilities to use the money for tuition at the private school of their choice.
But the Times found allegations of abuse at the homes, including requiring fellow students to participate in the punishment, restraints and seclusion:
DCF alone has conducted at least 165 investigations into the mistreatment of children.
Its investigators found evidence to support allegations in more than a third of those cases — 63 incidents at 17 homes with a list of offenses that include physical injury, medical neglect, environmental hazards, threatened harm, bizarre punishment, inadequate supervision, mental injury, asphyxiation and sexual abuse.
Among the cases DCF “verified:” a 16-year-old girl in Orlando pressured to perform oral sex on a counselor she considered a father figure; a 15-year-old boy in Punta Gorda forced to lie facedown in the dirt for three hours as a 220-pound counselor lay on top of him; and a 16-year-old boy in Port St. Lucie, shackled for 12 days and berated by staff with racial slurs.
The schools are allowed to operate outside of state regulation due to a 30-year-old law that exempts state oversight if a home says it would limit their religious practices.
And there is nothing to prevent outlaw operators from opening new boarding schools — which are allowed three years to apply for credentials.