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Budget cuts doom home for juvenile offenders

The small Hillsborough program is one of several similar facilities closing around the state.

By TAMARA LUSH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 30, 2002

SEFFNER -- On a recent day at the Hillsborough Group Treatment Home, two boys tucked a filing cabinet onto a dolly and wheeled it out of a classroom.

Another boy navigated between boxes of books and disassembled shelves to his desk. A bulletin board with long lines of gold stars, once proof of each boy's progress, was stashed against a wall.

After seven years of housing young offenders, the small group home closes its doors today, the victim of budget cuts in the state's Department of Juvenile Justice.

Teachers and administrators at the school say the home's 16 occupants -- boys ages 10 to 13, all of whom have been arrested -- have thrived in the rural setting. At least two of the program's teachers have been recognized with state teaching awards, and Gov. Jeb Bush once praised the school for being innovative and successful.

"Everyone cared about what was happening with each child," said Diane Wood, a therapist at the home. "We didn't perceive ourselves as a warehouse facility."

The contract to run the program ended earlier this year. The nonprofit that ran it since 1995 -- the Agency for Community Treatment Services -- declined to rebid on the contract. The Department of Juvenile Justice decided this spring to close the program.

"ACTS is losing money," said Hayward Davis, the home's program director. It costs about $750,000 to run the program, he said, and the state is providing $400,000. The Department of Juvenile Justice offered the same contract to ACTS this year as it did in 1995, with no cost of living adjustments and no increase in the $75-a-day stipend for the care of each boy.

At least five of the home's 13 staff members will be transferred to other locations, but eight staff members -- mostly people who worked directly with the children -- lost their jobs.

"We feel like mourning," said Wood.

Staff members are also worried about what will happen to the boys -- both the ones those in the program and those who would have ended up there.

Most of the residents went back to their families, but some went to live at larger group treatment homes that also house older teens.

Placing young offenders in a large setting with older boys could be a disaster, said teacher Mary Failes, who is employed by the Hillsborough County School District but taught at the group home under an interagency agreement. And sending boys back home may also lead them back into trouble, she said. Parents are often working and the county cut summer school because of budget woes.

"We save them when they're 12," said Failes, who has been a teacher for 30 years. "This type of program is needed for that age."

The boys at the school did traditional homework -- many learned to read for the first time, teachers said -- and learned new skills. One boy proudly showed a visitor the sunflowers and marigolds he planted near the boys dormitory, while admitting that he used to "mouth off" to adults before he arrived at the home 11 months earlier.

The group home also had a unique music program, now on hold because of the school's closing.

Last September, University of South Florida music professor Sheila Woodward started "Diversion in Music Education," a program to help at-risk kids heal and build self-esteem. Woodward and her USF students taught the boys how to play African marimbas and drums. The boys learned the music, made stage props and performed for audiences around the county.

By all accounts, the music program was the most popular thing at the home. One 13-year-old boy said he would like to continue playing drums when he goes to a regular middle school, and added that playing for an audience at USF was the greatest thing he's ever done.

"They learned life skills through music," teacher Theresa Goff said.

Diane Hirth, a spokeswoman for the Department of Juvenile Justice, said the Hillsborough Group Treatment Home is one of several small, low-risk facilities across the state that is closing.

Camps for juvenile offenders in Hernando and Sarasota counties are also closing, she said.

State officials scrutinized each program's cost, curriculum, reviews and recidivism rates before making the decision to shut it down.

The Hillsborough Group Treatment Home, she said, had high recidivism rates for a low-risk facility. The department tracked the home's students in two separate programs; in one program, 67 percent of the kids were in trouble within a year of release. In the second program, 78 percent of the kids had reoffended within a year.

The average recidivism rate for low-risk facilities is 42 percent, she said.

"We had some very tough choices," said Hirth. "A lot of agencies had to make sacrifices."

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