‘Boys of the Dark' exposes juvenile detention center scandal
By Steve Weinberg, For the Atlanta Journal Constitution


THE BOYS OF THE DARK: A Story of Betrayal and Redemption in the Deep South By Robin Gaby
Fisher with Michael O’McCarthy and Robert W. Straley St. Martin’s, 254 pages, $24.99


In an unusual collaboration for the realm of book publishing, journalist Robin Gaby Fisher has
collaborated with two men who resided at a juvenile detention center decades ago to expose a
scandal; the expose is long overdue, but in this instance, better late for a modicum of justice than
never.

Fisher ("After the Fire") investigated the Florida School for Boys, in the rural Panhandle town of
Marianna, a short drive from the southwest tip of Georgia. Michael O’McCarthy and Robert W.
Straley served as crucial sources for her, to the point where their names became added as co-
authors of sorts.

At the school, boys, many of them pre-teens, found themselves in a threatening environment,
committed by judges or extra-legal authorities as punishment for offenses serious and frivolous
alike. Straley, for example, committed to the school during 1963 at age 13, had done nothing more
serious than run away from alleged emotional abuse by his mother at home. O’McCarthy had been
sentenced to the school five years earlier, at age 15.

Built at the turn of the 20th century, the Florida School for Boys gained a reputation as a locale
mostly unsupervised by legislators or child welfare bureaucrats in Tallahassee. During the 1950s
and 1960s, the years known best to O’McCarthy and Straley as youthful residents, ugly
experiences mingled with rumors -- beatings with leather whips might have led to deaths,
according to the rumors, and certainly led to scars both physical and emotional. The rumors about
the youngsters who lived on the African-American side of the school grounds sounded even
more horrific than those about what happened to Caucasian boys who had preceded O’McCarthy
and Straley.

Reports of abuse at the school had reached the public in small bits starting in 1903, through
government reporters and journalistic accounts. But nobody with the power to reform the
practices had acted in a meaningful way. As Fisher and her collaborators note, “Everyone from
governors to legislators to journalists had known the place was a hellhole. Still, the abject cruelty
to children had been allowed to continue year after year, decade after decade.”

Perhaps nobody cared sincerely about youngsters labeled as throwaways. The children
themselves certainly had no voice while incarcerated, and tended to blot out the horrors after
being released.

Neither O’McCarthy nor Straley confronted the impacts of the horrors on the remainder of their
lives until the first decade of the 21st century. They found each other by chance, then sought
other survivors (including men who had settled in Georgia) through Internet postings, among
other means.

A chain of contacts led to the involvement of Carol Marbin Miller, a Miami Herald investigative
reporter. She agreed to conduct research about the long history of abuse after being contacted
by Gus Barreiro, a former Florida state legislator serving as a child welfare bureaucrat when first
contacted by O’McCarthy. Barreiro is portrayed by the authorial trio as relentlessly heroic after
deciding to become involved, despite the risk to his career that sometimes arrives when
deciding to act as a whistleblower.

(Ironically or perhaps just coincidentally, O’McCarthy -- as a journalist/documentary filmmaker
based in Greenville, South Carolina -- helped expose a different quasi-historical Florida injustice,
a race-based massacre in the town of Rosewood during 1923. Straley is not an investigative-type
by nature, describing himself as “a successful businessman from Clearwater, Florida.”) Fisher
wisely makes journalist Miller a key character in the book, while building on the Miami Herald
expose that ran in the edition of October 18, 2008. The book describes Miller as “a tough-as-nails
beat reporter who was as feared as she was revered by Florida power brokers.” Journalists are
not often viewed as heroic by the general populace, who tend to dislike the bearers of bad news.
Miller, however, seems to deserve admiration by anybody who cares about finding the truth when
public officials attempt to hide it.

Quite likely the Miami Herald is not done with the expose, and perhaps Fisher is not either. In a
note to readers at the beginning of the book, she notes that the abuse is “the basis of a civil
action in which many of the people telling their stories herein are plaintiffs. Their stories remain
under investigation and none of the alleged perpetrators of the torture…have been charged or
convicted of a crime.”