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Two investigations generate new Brown Schools concern

The school says it is cooperating with agencies investigating the allegations.

By JIM ROSS

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 24, 2001


LECANTO -- The Brown Schools is back under the microscope. Only this time, some new eyes are looking.

Brown's brief Citrus tenure has been troubled, to say the least. The company has inspired lawsuits from its neighbors and critical reports from its government monitor.

Now Brown has attracted attention from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the Department of Children and Families' inspector general and the Citrus County Sheriff's Office.

Yet another agency -- the State Attorney's Office -- will review whatever those investigations yield.

Here's a look at what's happening:

The FDLE and the Sheriff's Office are checking allegations that a resident or residents have sexually victimized other residents, officials with both agencies said Monday.

The reported attacks happened at the residential treatment facility Brown operates for severely emotionally disturbed adolescents. The program is housed in the former Heritage Hospital building off County Road 491 north of County Road 486.

FDLE spokesman Rick Morera said his agency helped investigate a previous case at Brown and agreed to assist local authorities again.

Donna Burtanger, the Brown spokeswoman, said the FDLE was reviewing one case in which a boy said he had been attacked. She said the agency also was checking whether Brown staff was guilty of "criminal misconduct" for its handling of the matter.

Burtanger said Brown was cooperating with the FDLE and had reviewed the matter itself.

"There is absolutely no reason to believe a child was raped. We're kind of at a loss as to the allegation of criminal misconduct," she said.

Burtanger said the Sheriff's Office is investigating other sex allegations, the kind that residents or anyone else can lodge on the state's abuse hotline.

Investigation from Children and Families is nothing new for Brown. That agency licenses Brown and issues the contract under which the company works. Brown is in regular contact with local Children and Families staffers.

But involvement from the inspector general, which serves as a kind of internal watchdog, is somewhat different.

A Children and Families spokeswoman in Tallahassee confirmed Monday that the inspector general was checking out Brown's operation here. She did not provide details.

Burtanger said the probe concerns allegations of Medicaid fraud that a former Brown employee lodged. "We are confident the inspector general's review, which is ongoing, will show that we are operating in a manner that is consistent with our contract with" Children and Families, she said.

Burtanger said her company was cooperating with the inspector general.

Stress related to that probe, not to mention other pressures related to Brown's rocky tenure in Citrus, led to executive director Matt Leary's resignation, Burtanger said. He remains with the company.

Kirk Zeppi, chief executive officer for Brown's Florida unit, has replaced Leary. But the stressful situations haven't stopped. In fact, one happened on April 13 -- the same day Brown informed Children and Families about the internal leadership change.

That night, a Friday, a 12-year-old Brown resident left the grounds between 7:30 and 8 p.m., state records showed. An employee -- just returning from de-activating a fire alarm the boy had pulled -- looked outside the building and spotted the boy in the parking lot.

The man chased the boy to CR 491 but could not catch up. The employee ran back to Brown and reported the escape, or elopement, as state officials call them.

The boy was later found at the Winn-Dixie in Beverly Hills, where he injured a deputy who helped take him into custody, the reports showed. Law officers then took him into custody under the state's Baker Act.

That incident certainly will receive notice as Brown seeks re-licensure from Children and Families. The process is ongoing, with a decision expected next month.

But Brown might get more bad news before then: Children and Families soon will release its new monitoring report, which is sort of like a report card.

The last review, issued in late December, was highly critical. Despite protestations from Brown -- including one lengthy presentation made last week -- Children and Families has refused to lift the moratorium on new admissions that accompanied that December report.

Burtanger said her company continues working with the state. In fact, to address one concern from monitors, Brown is building a fenced recreation area for residents.

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