By Bill Cotterell
Tallahassee, Florida (Reuters) - Declaring that "there is no shame in searching for the truth," Florida's cabinet agreed on Tuesday to permit bodies to be exhumed at an infamous former boys reform school, to identify dozens of children buried and forgotten in woodlands decades ago.
The institution, the Dozier School for Boys, a sprawling juvenile lock-up near Marianna in the state's Panhandle, was closed in 2011 after years of allegations it tortured boys in its care.
A small group of former prisoners applauded as Governor Rick Scott and the state cabinet unanimously approved a proposal to let a University of South Florida forensic anthropology team conduct dig at an area called "boot hill."
Dozens of suspected grave sites, long unmarked, now have plastic white tubing in the form of crosses in the area -although no one knows where bodies were buried or how many Dozier boys died there between 1914 and 1973.
Ground-penetrating radar has indicated that about 50 bodies may lie beneath the heavily forested hillside. Most of the dead are thought to be black youths, whose families were never told how or why they died.
Johnny Gaddy, a former Dozier student who attended the cabinet meeting, said families were told "you'd better forget it" when they asked about the disappearances.
"In a state as old as Florida is, we're going to have chapters in our history that we're more proud of than others," Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a cabinet member, said of the decision. "There is no shame in searching for the truth. The families of the victims, who want closure, who want answers, deserve those things."
There is no prospect of prosecuting anyone for the deaths of the boys, but Attorney General Pam Bondi said "all these kids, they deserve proper burials and that's what we're going to give them."
Researchers and students at the University of South Florida in Tampa found records of 98 deaths of boys between ages 6 and 18, plus two adult staff members at the school between 1914 and 1973.
The research, which included an examination of state death records, revealed missing, conflicting and "sloppy" record-keeping about the people buried at Dozier and how they died.
The most common causes of death were disease, fire, physical trauma and drowning. Seven boys died during escape attempts - including one 16-year-old who suffered gunshot wounds to the chest - and 20 died within the first three months of arrival, the report said.
USF professor Erin Kimmerle said her anthropology team can begin work soon in Jackson County. If bones are recovered, identification efforts will involve DNA matching with living relatives of the boys.
Kimmerle and U.S. Senator Bill Nelson visited the site last spring. Nelson has been pushing for exhumation of the burial grounds for several months.
"This decision puts us a step closer to finishing the investigation," Nelson said in a statement. "Nothing can bring these boys back but I'm hopeful that their families will now get the closure they deserve."
A Jackson County circuit judge last May rejected Bondi's request for the local medical examiner to exhume the bodies. Secretary of State Ken Detzner last month also declined to issue permits for the search.
Tuesday's decision gives USF a one-year permit to conduct the exhumation.
Nelson is backing a $3 million proposal for a U.S. Department of Justice grant for forensic research at the site.
State Representative Alan Williams, chairman of the state Legislative Black Caucus, applauded the governor and cabinet's decision.
"I am hopeful that the results of the research will provide some degree of comfort and closure to the families who have lost loved ones," said Williams. "This decision is a victory for the families who have long fought to exhume remains at the Dozier School for Boys."
(Editing by David Adams; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)