TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Victims from decades of abuse at two Florida reform schools could seek compensation under a bill approved by a Senate committee on Tuesday.
The bill approved 6-1 by the Senate Criminal Justice Committee would allow former inmates at the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna and the Florida School for Boys at Okeechobee to receive state certification that they were victims of physical, mental or sexual abuse.
The victims would then be able to file claims for psychological and physical injuries if they were inmates at the reform schools between the years 1940 and 1975. Families of former inmates who have since died wouldn't be able to file a claim on their behalf.
The Dozier reform school opened in 1900 and was closed in 2011. The Okeechobee school opened in 1955 to address overcrowding at Dozier.
It is believed that about 100 boys died at the Marianna facility, where 55 nameless graves were discovered.
The Florida Legislature formally apologized in 2017 for the physical and sexual abuse alleged to have been committed at the Dozier School for Boys throughout its century-long history.
News4Jax spoke with Charlie Fudge at the time.
He’s among roughly 500 who have come forward alleging abuse at the school.
“It’s hard to make it through the day because of the abuse that we went through,” said Fudge, who attended Dozier from 1960 to 1961.
Now Fudge and other victims’ ask for compensation is finally gaining traction.
Legislation sponsored by the same lawmaker who championed the apology would allow victims to make a claim with the state.
“For physical or psychological injury,” said Senator Darryl Rouson.
It’s not clear how much Dozier victims would be eligible to receive, but the bill sponsor told us sovereign immunity, which generally limits compensation to $200,000 wouldn’t apply in this case.
The bill passed its first committee with only one no vote, from a Senator who grew up near the school.
“I don’t believe for a minute that 500 people were mistreated there,” said Senator George Gainer.
But the bill sponsor said the remains of 40 boys uncovered on the school grounds in 2013 tell a different story.
“How can you reject graves? Bones that yet scream out for justice,” said Rouson.
And while the bill sponsor told us it would be helpful to have the backing of lawmakers from the Mariana community, he said it’s not necessary for the legislation’s success.
Memorials for the Dozier victims on the school grounds and at the State Capitol are in the process of being designed and built.
They were approved in 2017 alongside the official apology from the Legislature.