The pictures of happy children at the Pride Center at Equality Park — billed as South Florida’s leading social center for LGBT people — are on social media pages, websites and in the cameras of mothers and fathers who had no idea this wasn’t exactly the promised “safe space” where the children of gay parents could play in peace.
The photos show children inside the two-story building holding up artwork, posing with parents, face-painted at an event, and frolicking outside in the three-year-old playground.
The Pride Center in Wilton Manors was born when the HIV/AIDS crisis was the gay community’s main concern, but with the advent of gay marriage and child-rearing it has evolved into a family-friendly venue. It’s supposed to be a zone free of judgment or harassment, the kind of place where same-sex couples and their children engage each other, participate in activities and play without the children having to explain why they have two mommies and two daddies.
But, unbeknownst to parents, another kind of great danger lurked: a sexual predator, a man convicted of raping a child, was employed there. In one picture, he’s helping set up a Christmas party.
The nice janitor, Clarence Collins, a long-time employee who helped put up the interactive module in the playground and cleaned up after patrons of the community center, was convicted in 1995 of repeatedly molesting and raping an 11-year-old girl, who told investigators that he had pointed a gun at her and threatened to kill her if she told.
To underestimate the gravity of having someone with that kind of background around children — no matter how rehabilitated he seemed to be after serving seven years of a 10-year prison sentence — is to pile on the outrage. There’s not a single kind of sexual offense against a child that should be forgiven or explained away — whether you’re the janitor or the CEO or whether you’re 25 or 65.
Now that they’ve found out, parents are rightfully angry at Chief Executive Officer Robert Boo, who knew that Collins was a registered sex predator — and never bothered to dig into the details of his crime, except to call his probation officer, who allegedly told Boo there were no issues with Collins. (There certainly were over the past five years: That’s how long Collins lied on sex-predator registration forms about his real address, which put him close to a day care center. For that, he’s back in jail.)
Claiming ignorance is not a good defense.
Collins’ background is readily available on the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s sex offender registry, and although it doesn’t include details, it shows he was convicted of sexual offenses and lewd and lascivious conduct against a child under 12 — no small thing. Court records, easily accessed by Miami Herald reporter Martin Vassolo, detail the horrific case against him.
“He didn’t know and didn’t understand the gravity of the crime, the depths of the depravity,” Boo’s spokesman, Evan Nierman, told me.
“He didn’t do the legwork,” Nierman acknowledged. “He was horrified at what he read in the Miami Herald this morning.”
But Boo knew enough — and was concerned enough — to tell Collins that he needed to stay away when children were around. It didn’t guarantee anything. Parents say he was around often.
For his unforgivable negligence and colossal bad judgment — and for minimizing the danger to justify his inaction in statements he’s made — Boo should be asked to step down from his post. He characterized Collins, 63, as “elderly.” Hardly, when you don’t even qualify for full retirement. But, most important, pedophilia doesn’t have age limits. The last thing South Florida’s upstanding gay community needs is to give off the perception that any kind of child abuse is a tolerable offense.
When Boo came into the organization in 2006 as director of development, he inherited Collins, who was reportedly a good worker, showed up on time, never missed a day and was well-liked. That a man released from prison was given a second chance is fine for adults. But as soon as Pride Center became family-oriented, Collins should have been let go. It’s the law — and a widely known one at that. Child sex predators must stay at least 300 feet away from any public place where children are congregating, be it a school, day care center, playground, park or community center.
That Boo “didn’t know the statute” doesn’t cut it for me. That he became enlightened on a Friday and fired Collins on Monday in March doesn’t mitigate the years he allowed him to work among children. The apparent tolerance for a sex predator on the premises only feeds the vitriol and stigma the LGBT community endures and has fought so hard to overcome.
It’s egregious that the man in charge — and others at the center who also knew Collins’ status — kept it from unsuspecting parents. Although no incidents have been reported, the lax handling of an employee with a sordid past put everyone and the organization at risk.
This is not about Collins’ right to a second chance at making a living.
This is about children’s right to be safe.
Hopefully, the misjudgment won’t mar the good work of the Pride Center on healthcare, advocacy and support for LGBTQ people.
But it’ll surely take time for parents to recover trust — and who can blame them?
Better to face a bully in a playground than pay the cost of secrecy in one’s own community.