Lawsuits accuse National Deaf Academy of abuse and neglect

By Dave D'Marko, Reporter
Last Updated: Monday, September 15, 2014, 8:41 PM EDT

Three families of deaf children are filing lawsuits, claiming their children were neglected and abused at a Mt. Dora school.

The allegations range from sexual abuse to malnutrition.

Ninety-nine times in the past decade, the Department of Children and Families has launched investigations at the National Deaf Academy in Mt. Dora, also known as NDA Behavioral Health Systems.

Allegations include sexual molestation, asphyxiation and broken bones.

Jacksonville attorney Bruce Maxwell is representing three families who filed suit Monday. All now live out of state.

“These are children who have been victimized, they are either deaf, autistic or both," Maxwell said. "Many have to sign to communicate so it’s difficult to communicate to others. So in my mind that makes them the ideal prey.”

One of those victims he’s representing was allegedly sexually abused with a straw. But after consulting with the state attorney’s office, the police department decided to drop the case.

“We are not saying any of these incidents didn’t happen. Our job is to prove or disprove the allegations, in this case we could not prove that anything happened,” Deputy Chief Robert Bell said.

But Mt. Dora Police have been in close contact with the school since 2008, when the number of calls for service at the 132-bed facility ballooned to more than 200.

By 2010 they’d dropped off to 52 calls, but that same year Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration fined the school $6,000 when seven different students escaped or tried to kill themselves.

“We don’t think enough has been done and unfortunately I’m the only one these families have to turn to to create change,” Maxwell said.

NDA's Steven Smith issued the following statement:

"Today, our facility was provided with letters from an attorney representing three former patients but no actual lawsuits were filed.  The care at issue in these notices dates back as far as 4 years ago.  NDA does not comment on pending or threatened litigation but does intend to defend itself vigorously while continuing to operate our facility with the patient’s best interest in mind.  For  14 years, the National Deaf Academy and its 230 employees have been successfully and diligently serving the psychiatric needs of this special community.  These claims, which have yet to be proven, do not reflect the quality of care we have provided to hundreds of children and adults whose lives have been enhanced and improved by the caring treatment they received at NDA."