Brown Schools to shut down
By CARRIE JOHNSON, BRIDGET HALL GRUMET and BARBARA BEHRENDT
LECANTO -- Just as the Brown Schools was shedding its problem-prone image, the residential facility for emotionally disturbed adolescents announced Monday that it would close its doors within 30 days because of financial difficulties.
Officials from the Tennessee-based company said they had primarily been plagued by a low occupancy rate since the Lecanto facility opened two years ago.
"We just weren't getting the referral base to keep enough kids in the building to have a viable program," said Margo Bonner, senior vice president for operations.
The rocky economy, cutbacks in state funding and difficulty recruiting employees to the rural treatment center made matters even worse, she said.
The 82-bed treatment facility, located in the former Heritage Hospital, currently houses 39 adolescents ages 8 to 17.
It will be up to the Department of Children and Families, which handled most referrals to the Brown Schools, to find alternative placement for the residents within the next month.
"It will be a challenge," said Janice Johnson, acting administrator for DCF District 13, which includes Citrus County.
Although the facility is located in District 13, which also includes Sumter, Hernando, Lake and Marion counties, no of the youths at Brown are from this area, Johnson said. Representatives from each child's home DCF district will be responsible for finding the child another place to live.
Company officials said they would work closely with the Florida Workforce Commission Office to help its 90 Citrus employees find jobs elsewhere.
News of the closing brought sorrow and shock from members of the school's citizen advisory board.
"It's just a shame," said Joan Murphy, who is also the head of the Citrus branch of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. "I'm really and truly disappointed because there isn't any other place for these children who are victims."
Many Brown residents are victims of sexual or physical abuse. Several are mentally ill.
Murphy said she feared that most of the youths would be placed in juvenile jails, which don't offer as much psychiatric treatment as Brown.
"Why are we allowing this to happen?" she asked, her voice breaking with emotion. "Have we so completely alienated ourselves from the children of sorrow?"
After so much turmoil locating the school in the community and the controversies surrounding its operation, board member Jane Fricano said the timing of the closure was especially upsetting.
"It had just really gotten a good rapport with the community," she said. "To see it taken away now, it really hurts. It's really a shame."
The news was welcome in the Black Diamond residential development, however. It had filed legal challenges against the county, questioning government's decision to allow Brown to open.
"I am super, super elated that we won the battle," said resident Marvin Query, who said he has spent two years and $55,000 on challenges to the facility.
Brown opened its doors in summer 2000, touted as the first success of the beleaguered Citrus County Economic Development Council, which helped bring the facility to Lecanto.
But Brown experienced a rocky start, as residents vandalized the building and occasionally escaped and committed crimes.
The DCF almost canceled its contract with the organization. But in May 2001, Brown agreed to stop accepting residents whom the juvenile court system had declared incompetent to understand their cases.
The problems died down almost immediately. Brown's contract with DCF was renewed, and the school was recently accredited by the Joint Commission on the Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations.
The facility hired a new chief executive officer, Russell Dean, in July, after its former leader resigned to return to private mental health practice.
Despite the recent upswing, the company was not able to make the program profitable, said Diane Huggins, senior vice president for communications. Similar financial problems forced Brown to close an operation in Pembroke Pines in May.
The facility's rural location proved especially troublesome, Huggins added. One reason: DCF's policy calls for children to be placed as close to their homes as possible, and there were fewer potential residents in Citrus and surrounding counties compared with other areas Brown serves.
Second, it took more money to recruit and lure potential staff members to Citrus County.
"If you have a large, metropolitan area, it's easier to find the kind of professional people you are looking for," Huggins said.
Legal battles continue
The closure won't halt the legal battles over the facility, however.
Black Diamond is pressing forward with its challenges to the county's decision two years ago that allowed Brown to open its doors, said Clark Stillwell, the attorney who represents the developer and the property owners' association.
If the community backs down now, he said, nothing would prevent a similar facility from moving into the soon-to-be-vacated Heritage Hospital, which is off County Road 491 north of County Road 486.
"At this point in time, all we know is they've ceased operation, but they still have valid permits," Stillwell said. "As long as those permits are there, the exact same use could be put in that facility a year or two down the road."
Query, the Black Diamond resident, also plans to pursue his separate but similar legal challenges to the county's approval of Brown Schools.
The county's 1986 zoning approval for the Heritage Hospital building provided a specific plan for the property's use as an adult psychiatric facility. Any significant deviation from that plan, by the original or subsequent owners, would require another round of county review, including a trip before the County Commission.
Gary Maidhof, the county's director of Development Services, gave the green light to Brown Schools in 2000 after determining it was not a significant deviation from that plan.
Black Diamond residents such as Query disagree.
Heritage served adults who voluntarily checked themselves in, Query said. Brown served troubled teens who were often came in involuntarily and therefore were prone to escaping and causing problems for the neighbors, he said.
To make his point, Query said the facility logged 267 assaults on employees from January to March 2001, when Brown Schools was home to about a dozen teens.
"That is not just acting out," said Query, 64. "They scratched, bit, gouged and pulled hair. I want that 100 yards from my back door?"
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