Former Hope Children's Home residents allege frequent paddlings, isolation and humiliation at home

Director says practices have DCF stamp of approval
Posted at 11:40 PM, Nov 16, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-17 16:06:12-05

“I was put through being beaten. I was put through horrible humiliation,” said former Hope Children’s Home resident Caroline Farmer.

“I would go to my room and cry,” said John Werst, who also lived at the home.

“It wasn't a fun time in our lives,” said Jillian Butler, recalling her time at Hope.

Eight former Hope Children's Home residents who lived there at different times from 2006 to last year are speaking out to the I-Team.

“I've been telling anybody who would listen to me this is what happened. This is what these people would do,” said former Hope resident Catherine Farmer.

“We just practice those good old standards that have been done for years,” Hope Executive Director Mike Higgins said, describing his methods of providing discipline to children at Hope.

Higgins took over as Executive Director in 2005.

Since assuming that role, sheriff's deputies have been called to Hope 116 times, including for 14 child abuse investigations.

In many reports, there's a reference to a practice called "swatting".

“Probably children are given spankings in the wrong way, but we practice doing it the right way at Hope,” Higgins said.

“You didn't eat your food, you got a swat. You didn't read your Bible, you got a swat,” said Austin Atzert.

“It was like a piece of wood that was like this big, with a handle on it,” said Elaine Heeley, describing the paddle.

“They would pull it all the way back and smack you,” said Catherine Farmer.

“They would have you face the wall and they would just sit there and wail on you,” said Werst.

“To where you're holding the paddle like a baseball bat is a little too far,” said former Hope resident Chris Atzert, saying that happened to many children at Hope.

“It hurt an abnormal amount to me. And so afterwards, I went to the bathroom and I checked. And immediately there were like these huge bruises and welts,” said Caroline Farmer.

“I refute every one of those. We do not spank children and leave bruises on them. We do not hit them with a baseball bat approach. We do it very systematically, with the approval of our state legislative bodies, including DCF,” Higgins said.

Hope is regulated by the Florida Association of Christian Child Caring agencies, or FACCA, which banned corporal punishment in 2014.

Higgins serves on FACCCA's board.

He says even though he can no longer paddle kids in the home, he can while they are at school. 

FACCA also banned isolation for longer than 60 minutes in 2012.

“That's a different form or isolation, where a child is put in a room with no accommodations whatsoever,” said Higgins, arguing that a form of isolation he uses at Hope does not apply.

Police reports show Hope has used a program called “TLC” for the past decade.  

The former Hope children told us that stood for “Total Life Change”.

“One of the rooms they would put kids in was a linen closet,” said Butler. “I was in that room with just a Bible and a few changes of clothes and that was it.”

“You weren't allowed to talk to anybody,” said former Hope resident Elaine Heeley.

“That would be your bedroom for however long they wanted it to be your bedroom. You were cut off from everyone else,” said Catherine Farmer.

“I've known kids that have been on it for six months,” said Werst.

A 2012 Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office investigation quotes multiple children who said they spend 42, 60 and 180 days in TLC.  

“These children are still integrated into the programs of the children's home,” said Higgins, but he admitted they are not allowed to communicate with each other.

“We're trying to separate them to get their attention so we can focus on them one-on-one and help them through the struggles they're having,” he said.

The abuse cases investigated by law enforcement were closed as "unfounded".

FACCCA's Executive Director told the I-Team in an email that it doesn't comment on its actions to enforce compliance and said DCF and law enforcement determine whether a complaint is verified, not FACCCA.

This week, Higgins told us they changed their TLC program to have a 30-day limit.

Former Hope resident Jennifer Renois tells the I-Team that the 45 days she spent is TLC was a positive experience.

"I was just a teen going in the wrong direction and Hope Children's Home helped me get back on track. Although I was separated from my friends, it gave me the time to reflect on what I was doing," Renois said in a handwritten note provided to us by Mike Higgins. 

Renois, who lived at the home from 2004-20012, said she had her fair share of being padded there but  said she "deserved every one I got."

“We have been totally exonerated and they put their stamp of approval on the program,” Higgins said of DCF.

“The power is with the adults. You are confined in this facility. You are living in this facility,” said psychologist Bob Friedman, who is one of America’s top experts on group home abuse.

He says programs that frequently punish kids can cause psychological damage. 

“You see kids who end up feeling worthless as a result, they may cut on themselves, they may become suicidal,” he said.

“I cut myself in any way I could find. I'd get glass, blades, I needed to hurt myself,” said Farmer.

Caroline Farmer and her sister Catherine went to live at Hope after their parents lost their jobs.

Higgins says both were overweight when they arrived.

“They put us on diets, very peculiar diets,” Catherine Farmer said.

“Both of the girls lost a lot of weight and looked phenomenal when they left here,” said Higgins.

Elaine Heeley was also put on a diet.

“You kind of felt humiliated because you knew you were not allowed to have seconds and you knew you weren't allowed to touch dessert and if you did, they would yell at you,” said Heeley.

“She lost over 70 pounds and she felt phenomenal about herself,” said Higgins.

Caroline Farmer says she was caught sneaking food and was humiliated and punished.

“I know how I look, but as a little girl, how can you look at a 9 year old girl and say you're ugly? You need to lose weight,” she said.

“I hate to see them in the situation now that they're in where it looks like they've totally regressed and seem to be emotionally distraught,” Higgins said of the Farmers.  

The former Hope kids we interviewed said they wanted just one thing... a change in leadership.

“I think they have been hurt in life prior to coming to Hope. And I think as a result of that, they're looking for an avenue to put blame on,” said Higgins.

“I just think about the kids there now and I just don't want them to have to go through what I went through,” said Butler.

“Jesus wouldn't be doing this kind of thing. He wouldn't be treating children like this. He wouldn't be tearing down some little child. Wouldn't be beating them,” said Caroline Farmer.

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