Amid school closure, needy kids left adrift
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 20, 2002
They're packing the boxes and suitcases at the Brown Schools facility in Lecanto. After two rocky years of existence, the center for troubled children will close in the next few weeks.
The parent company has determined that the financial figures just don't add up and so, just as the program is finally getting on its feet, the rug has been pulled out from under it.
Many in the community, particularly the center's neighbors in Black Diamond, cheered Monday's announcement. Others are lamenting that a needed program is shutting down. Given the history of the Brown Schools in Citrus County, both responses are understandable.
Seemingly lost in the tangle of opinions is the question of what this will mean for the children being served, kids who have had to endure too much turmoil in their young lives.
The state Department of Children and Families says it will find other places for the 39 kids to live. "It will be a challenge," admitted Janice Johnson, acting administrator for this DCF district.
The larger challenge will be faced by the children themselves, who will see their support systems of counselors, caregivers and friends broken apart.
These are children who desperately need stability in their lives. Many are victims of sexual or physical abuse or suffer from mental illnesses. They had no say in the controversies that surrounded the arrival of the Brown Schools in Citrus nor in the decision to pull out. As has always happened to them, they are the silent victims, carried along like leaves in a stream.
When the Brown Schools burst onto the local scene, the focus first was on the business side of things. It was hailed by the fledgling Economic Development Council, which touted the number and pay scale of the jobs that would be created.
Then, the questions started popping up. The Times revealed that the Brown Schools had problems at facilities in Florida and elsewhere. The land deal that brought the center here, orchestrated by an EDC official, raised other questions. The sheriff and school district officials chimed in with legitimate concerns about the potential impacts of the facility.
When the attention finally turned to the kids, it was all negative.
Residents of Black Diamond worried about their safety when the Times reported that a number of the teens who would be housed there were from a state program for children who have committed serious crimes but who have been determined to be incompetent to stand trial.
Those anxieties were borne out by the frequent calls to the sheriff's office about problems with the clients (including two teens who had run away from the center and stolen a car) and when allegations surfaced about a Brown staffer who had failed to report a child-on-child sexual abuse complaint.
The worries were eased somewhat in mid-2001 when Brown stopped accepting children with competency issues from the state program.
In recent months, Brown Schools officials have improved the center's operations, earning good grades in a state review last year. The legal battles continue over whether the center should have ever been allowed to open at the former Heritage Hospital site, but the operation seemed to be finally finding its way.
Until Monday, that is, when the parent company announced the impending closure.
In the coming weeks, the center's workers will leave, the lights will go out and silence will envelop the facility.
And the troubled kids will be scattered around the state, trying once again to piece together a structure for their lives while wondering when the next shoe will fall.
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