When Joe Cox was born 17 years ago, his umbilical cord wrapped twice around his neck and nearly strangled him. He survived, but his brain was permanently damaged. Today he has an IQ of 68, suffers from impulsive behavior, and is unable to care for himself. His father, the Rev. James Cox, a community leader and minister at West Lauderdale Baptist Church, has sent him to special schools and provided him with high-level psychiatric care, but Joe has never shown much progress.
So this past November, when the state Department of Children and Families referred Joe to a residential brain-injury treatment center called the Florida Institute for Neurologic Rehabilitation (FINR) and promised to pay the hefty $93,000 bill for three months of professional care, the reverend jumped at the chance. The state gave FINR a glowing recommendation, and its Internet site shows a beautiful campus on 900 acres in rural Wauchula, roughly 70 miles southeast of Tampa. So Cox made the four-hour drive from Fort Lauderdale to the facility and left Joe there with the hope of a breakthrough.
Instead the sole thing broken was Joe's spirit; the care he received was horrific, his father says. Joe was given only nominal treatment, lived in poor conditions, and was beaten, burned, and raped by developmentally impaired teens who lived with him, Reverend Cox alleges.
Cox helped spark a state investigation at the center, and he and his attorney, John Contini, plan to file a civil lawsuit against FINR this week. "This is egregious, and it's against the law," Cox declares. "This place has been able to get away with it because many of the residents are foster kids and they are mentally ill. They messed with the wrong kid when they messed with Joe."
True enough. Cox is a formidable activist; he's been involved in countless charities and manages government-backed, faith-based programs that have served thousands of at-risk Broward County children. And he's helped to uncover a maze of problems at FINR, a for-profit company that houses 95 developmentally impaired children and adults in its facility. Cox's complaint was just one of more than 200 abuse allegations filed against FINR in the past two years, according to state officials, who say that several residents have suffered serious injuries there at the hands of other residents or staff members.
A DCF memo dated March 7, 2001, indicates the severity of the problems at FINR, which has many public contracts. "We have observed an escalating pattern of increased abuse reports and injuries," wrote DCF administrator Sue Gray. "Underlying most of the concerns is the inadequate and under-trained and unsupervised direct care staff.... I would strongly suggest that any of you who have children in this facility need to explore other options for their care."
Cox says he had no idea about FINR's problems when he sent Joe, but during his first visit with his son there, he noticed the residents seemed out of control. Once, the reverend says, he saw a teen holding a large nail and chasing a staff member. "The whole place was chaotic," Cox reports.
And Joe hated it. After a Christmas trip to visit relatives in North Carolina, the boy, who weighs 300 pounds, threatened to jump out of the car if he were returned to FINR. Still, Cox kept his son there, believing the facility might be beneficial in the long run.
In a January phone call, Joe told his father that other teens had beaten him and burned him with cigarettes. Cox complained to staff members, who promised to file an abuse report; he alleges they never did. On February 2, a Friday, Cox called the facility and said he was coming to pick up Joe, but an FINR doctor insisted the boy needed seven more days of treatment before he could be released. Cox drove to Wauchula anyway, arriving at about 11 p.m., and signed out his son. Then they went to a restaurant in nearby Avon Park, where the father saw signs of abuse. "I looked on Joe's head, and I saw this big sore," explains the father. "Then he lifted up his T-shirt, and his entire chest was covered with bruises, burns, cuts, scars, and rashes. I was very angry. They wanted seven more days with Joe so the cuts and bruises would heal before I saw them."
Cox immediately took his son to a nearby hospital and called the state's abuse hotline. The injuries were documented in photographs, medical reports, and drawings. But it wasn't until a couple weeks later that Joe described in graphic detail how three other patients had raped him, Cox says. Joe gave the names of staff members who, he alleged, witnessed the rape but did nothing. He also told stories of other teens who had been abused.
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During the investigation state officials issued a moratorium on placements at the center and forced FINR to increase training for staff, add more clinicians to the payroll, and get rid of several top staffers, including former chief operations officer Anthony Ciccarelli. Kevin O'Keefe, who replaced Ciccarelli as COO, says the center cooperated fully with the state and has improved its services. He acknowledges the numerous complaints, including Cox's, but claims they are unfounded.
The overhaul didn't depose FINR president and owner Joseph Brennick, though his career shows a pattern of questionable practices. Before starting FINR in 1992, Brennick helped to run a national chain of brain-injury centers called New Medico. That company, founded by his father, Charles Brennick, went out of business in 1992 as a result of a flurry of malpractice suits and several federal investigations into allegations of fraud and neglect. Joseph Brennick didn't return phone messages from New Times.
The owner's past didn't keep state agencies from contracting with FINR in the first place, and, after the recent state-mandated changes, public officials again began placing patients there. Currently about 40 residents, including 12 foster children, are being treated at FINR with government aid. Paid with both state and federal Medicaid dollars, the public contracts are worth millions to the company.
Cox is skeptical that the facility is safe today, especially with Brennick still at the helm. As for Joe, the teen's father says the damage will likely never heal; despite intense therapy his son is still mortally afraid to go into any medical facility because of what happened to him at FINR. "The only thing positive that can happen," Cox says, "is that other children won't have to go through what Joe did."