Tuesday the Florida Cabinet approved the excavation of graves at the former Dozier School for Boys in Marianna. Work can begin immediately.
The University of South Florida requested the right to exhume the bodies and identify. During previous research they found evidence of nearly 20 additional graves that were unmarked.
The Cabinet was able to give their approval since it is giving the researchers rights to state lands. Attorney General Pam Bondi who has supported the effort made the suggestion to USF to seek the Cabinet's approval.
USF was previously denied twice. Once by the Bureau of Archeological Research or BARS who said they could only approve permits for historical artifact gathering. First by a Jackson County Judge who said he did not have the authority and told the group to go to the State.
The action will allow USF one-year to complete their work. The Florida Legislature has set aside nearly $200,000 for the project. U.S. Senator Bill Nelson says up to $3,000,000 in grant funds may also be available.
Dozier has been at the center of scrutiny by a group called the White House Boys. They claim abuse went on at the juvenile detention center for years. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigated their claims and released their finding of no wrong doing back in 2009.
The information below was released Tuesday by the Florida Attorney General's Office:
TALLAHASSEE, Fla.–Attorney General Pam Bondi released the following statement on today's vote by the Florida Board of Trustees to approve a land use agreement regarding the Dozier School for Boys:
"From the beginning, I have supported efforts at the Dozier School for Boys in order to provide family members who lost loved ones with closure. I was proud to vote in favor of the land use agreement that authorizes the University of South Florida to continue their work to return the human remains to the families and provide them with proper burials."
"This decision puts us a step closer to finishing the investigation," said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL). "Nothing can bring these boys back, but I'm hopeful that their families will now get the closure they deserve."
Nelson and a number of other officials have been outspoken advocates of allowing USF to complete its work, which was stalled by an adverse state decision last month. Today's decision by the Cabinet comes after months of back and forth between USF researchers and other state officials.
In May, a Jackson County circuit court judge rejected a request by state Attorney General Pam Bondi to grant a local medical examiner permission to exhume the bodies buried on school grounds. Just last month, the Florida Department of State denied issuing the permits needed to begin the exhumations.
The USF research team, led by Dr. Erin Kimmerle, is now expected to begin the exhumations later this month. The researchers will try to match DNA samples taken from the living relatives of boys buried long ago on the grounds of a now-shuttered reform school.
Over the years, the reform school has been the subject of several major investigations stemming from allegations of abuse. Florida officials closed the school in 2011 following a state police probe into the latest such allegations that found no evidence of any crimes.
But that probe was called into question late last year when a USF forensic team began examining the site and found more unmarked graves than police had said were there.
Nelson got involved after a Polk County man asked the lawmaker's office for help last year in locating his uncle's remains known to be buried in an unmarked cemetery on the grounds of the reform school.
Since then, Nelson has written the governor urging him to the back the scientists' work.
He is still backing the university's application for a Department of Justice grant he helped identify that would cover the costs associated with forensic research involving the use of DNA to identify missing or dead persons. Up to $3 million will be awarded to select applicants.
Nelson went to the Dozier school site earlier this year. And in June, he assisted researches in collecting DNA samples from living relatives at an event held at USF's campus in Tampa.
Statement by Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam
Commissioner of Agriculture Adam H. Putnam issued the following statement today after the Florida Board of Trustees approved further research and excavation at the former Dozier School for Boys property:
"I want to thank the University of South Florida (USF) for the extraordinary work that they have done and will continue to do and I want to thank the Governor and the Attorney General in particular for bringing this issue before Cabinet. I'm pleased that this Cabinet – in its capacity as the Florida Board of Trustees – granted permission to USF to continue its search for the truth and, hopefully, provide closure to the families and victims who were impacted by the events at Dozier School for Boys decades ago.
"The Dozier School for Boys was a state facility that was ignored for too long by state officials. There is no shame in searching for the truth. The families deserve to know where their loved ones are buried and make their own personal decisions about the relocation of those remains. I encourage this Cabinet to continue to give its total support to USF's pursuit of that truth and the support for the resources that USF needs in this effort."
For more information about the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, visit www.FreshFromFlorida.com.