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Brown to halt some admits

The Brown Schools of Florida will no longer accept residents from its controversial competency restoration program.

By JIM ROSS

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 18, 2001


LECANTO -- In a dramatic about-face, the Brown Schools of Florida announced Thursday that it no longer will accept residents from its controversial competency restoration program.

Those residents often caused the most trouble at Brown's facility in Lecanto. They also have been the primary focus of Brown critics outside government.

Only time will tell what effect this policy shift will have on public opinion. But there's no doubt the change has pleased Brown's state regulator, the Department of Children and Families.

That agency's local leader announced Thursday that he plans to lift a longstanding admissions moratorium. Brown's agreement to halt the controversial admissions clearly was a significant factor.

Last year, Brown transformed the old Heritage Hospital building off County Road 491 into a residential treatment facility for emotionally disturbed adolescents.

Children and Families, which is legally required to provide such residential treatment, hired Brown to run the facility.

Many residents were wary of the program, especially when they learned -- long after Brown and the Economic Development Council announced the plans -- that part of the population would come from the state's "incompetent to proceed" program.

Those adolescents are accused of felony-level crimes who cannot proceed any further in the juvenile court system because mental illness impedes their competency.

The state has hired Brown to serve work with those clients until they are competent to get back in court. Most of the work is done when the children live at home or with a guardian.

But some of the adolescents require residential treatment. So Brown has several facilities in Florida where it provides that service.

In a bow to community pressure, Brown agreed that it would accept children involved in that program only if they met other admissions criteria.

Still, people who live near the facility expressed concern: What if the children left campus and entered the community, committing crimes?

Brown offered assurances, but they didn't sit well. Nearby Black Diamond and some of its individual residents brought legal action on several fronts, saying Brown essentially was running a detention-type facility and questioning the county zoning decision that allowed the company to set up shop.

Brown has been fighting those challenges, but it has been losing ground just about everywhere else.

Children and Families inspectors wrote a highly critical report in December, saying Brown was failing to maintain proper records, was admitting children incorrectly and didn't have adequate staff.

Meanwhile, residents have caused more than 600 false fire alarms and caused the Citrus County Sheriff's Office to visit nearly 200 times in less than a year. There have been four escapes, two of which involved subsequent law violations by the escapees.

All but one of the escapes involved residents from the competency restoration program. Brown spokeswoman Donna Burtanger said that population also has been responsible for "the majority" of the in-house damage, as well.

Children and Families instituted the admissions moratorium in December as part of its critical review. Brown made progress but still got low marks earlier this month when Children and Families came back for a re-assessment.

Brown's new license will restrict admissions from 88 to 44, but not even that was enough to satisfy Children and Families.

According to Burtanger, top Brown officials held a telephone conference call last week with Patrick Howard, the top Children and Families official in this region. During that conversation, it was agreed Brown no longer would take children from the controversial program.

"It's very apparent that this is the right move," Burtanger said. She noted that the move doesn't mean Brown won't experience any more problems, since the remaining residents still have emotional issues that sometimes cause them to act out inappropriately.

The moratorium will be lifted once Brown handles some other administrative matters, Howard wrote in a letter to Brown officials Thursday. Brown will continue to serve the four students who are part of competency restoration until they are ready for discharge.

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