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    Parents win halt of accused criminals' transfer

    The state backs off its plan to send accused criminals to a home for the mentally retarded.

    By CURTIS KRUEGER

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 25, 2001


    After an outburst of pleas from panicked parents, the state Department of Children and Families has backed off its plan to send accused criminals to a Fort Myers home for 300 mentally retarded adults.

    Department Secretary Kathleen Kearney on Tuesday reversed the department's earlier plan to transfer up to 16 mentally retarded people who have been accused of crimes to the Gulf Coast Center near Fort Myers.

    Several parents of Gulf Coast's profoundly retarded residents said their children could be vulnerable to a new population of potentially violent residents. Many of the long-term residents of Gulf Coast have IQs in the 20-range and are not able to walk or talk.

    "Oh thank God," was Mary Ann Redman's reaction when a reporter told her of the department's reversal Tuesday.

    But Mrs. Redman, who lives in Tampa and whose daughter has spent more than 30 years in Gulf Coast, was nonetheless troubled when told that eight residents of another institution in the North Florida town of Marianna would be transferred to Gulf Coast under Kearney's plan.

    She and other parents said their understanding was that those residents were higher-functioning, with some having IQs in the 70-range. That too raises the possibility that these newer residents could manipulate or abuse the others, some parents said.

    "My daughter is 42. She's about 10 months old mentally, and most of them are like that," said Mrs. Redman. "I just want the safety of my child to be utmost."

    "You can't mix apples and oranges like this," said Pat Ballard of St. Petersburg, whose 39-year-old son has lived at Gulf Coast since he was 6. She said her son suffered permanent injuries from beatings he received by other residents as a child, and she doesn't want him to experience that again.

    She questioned whether the existing staff could accommodate the new residents, but said "I'm grateful to God" that they won't be those who have been accused of crimes.

    In the meantime, the department is in the midst of a review of medical records and procedures, following an anonymous letter claiming that there have been preventable deaths at the center. In one documented case, a resident died after swallowing a latex glove.

    The residents who were to have been transferred have been accused of crimes but not prosecuted because they were found mentally incompetent to stand trial. The department had wanted to transfer the residents to Gulf Coast because the center has about 30 empty beds.

    - Staff writer Thomas C. Tobin contributed to this story.

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