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Nancy Smith

Gus Barreiro, Hero for Dozier, Powerful Voice for Juvenile Justice, Has Died

August 18, 2019 - 11:15am
Gus Barreiro meets with Dozier 'White House Boys', May 2010
Gus Barreiro meets with Dozier 'White House Boys', May 2010

If it hadn't been for the tenacity and the passion and the giant heart of one Republican legislator from Miami, it's very possible the horrors that persisted for decades at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna may never have been exposed.

But state Rep. Gustavo "Gus" Barreiro did what other officials wouldn't -- or didn't. He listened to two scarred, middle-aged, former delinquents who came to him with stories of the hellish lives they led shut away in the Dozier school, thrown away in a sadistic nightmare of torture and hopelessness. So outraged was Barreiro that he risked his relationship with some in his own party, with agencies, even with Gov. Jeb Bush. He risked it all, say his friends, to get the Dozier school shuttered forever.

It's good to hear so many Floridians warmly remembering Barreiro's contributions today. 

Sadly, the Cuban immigrant and former lawmaker -- Florida's maybe-EVER greatest crusader for children caught in the juvenile justice system -- died Friday of a massive heart attack at his Cutler Bay home. He was 60.

Read award-winning reporter Carol Marbin Miller's story about him in the Saturday Herald

From left, Gaston Cantens, Ken Sorensen, Manuel Prieguez and Gus Barreiro
From left, Gaston Cantens, Ken Sorensen, Manuel Prieguez and Gus Barreiro
Barreiro's brother Bruno and The Children’s Trust, where Barreiro worked since 2015 as public policy and community engagement liaison, announced the news Friday. Said the Trust in its announcement, “We are heartbroken to inform the entire Trust community that our dear colleague and friend Gus Barreiro, a former member of the Florida House of Representatives and lifelong advocate for South Florida, passed away today. Our deepest condolences to his family. Rest in peace, Gus."

Barriero's journey has been marked by a lifetime of public service.

While still in college, he founded the Wisconsin Living Learning Center, "a group youth home for adjudicated delinquent boys that served as a diversionary program from the criminal justice system." With a grant from the Department of Juvenile Justice, Barreiro remained in Wisconsin after graduation to continue operating the program -- a model for the Badger State -- for nine years.

Accomplished author Robin Gaby Fisher wrote a book about what probably is Barreiro's greatest accomplishment,  the outing of the Dozier School. The book is called "The Boys of the Dark." In Miller's Herald story, she quotes Fisher: "The horrors of what went on at Dozier would never have been exposed had it not been for the bravery of Gus. I know for Robert and Michael (Straley and O'McCarthy, the two former Dozier boys who sought Barreiro out) Gus was really a lifesaver. Before Michael found Gus and Gus became their advocate, Robert had lost his will to live and Michael was deteriorating mentally.

"Gus' belief in them, his belief in their story, gave them breath again," Fisher said.

Two of Barreiro's friends, both former legislators, admitted Saturday they were still in shock and having a tough time dealing with the loss. 

"There were four of us Republicans from Miami-Dade, all elected to the House in 1998," said Manuel Prieguez. "We've all got this same framed picture of ourselves. We treasure it. We're standing side by side with our hands raised, taking the oath -- Gaston Cantens, Ken Sorensen, me and Gus on the end. Ken is deceased, too, so now there are only two of us left.

"I'll tell you what I think was really special about Gus," Prieguez told Sunshine State News. "When you told him what you were doing, what was important to you, it became important to him, too. He made my goals his goals, just because he cared about me."

Castens confessed the photo of the four freshmen legislators was important to him, too. "I'm bringing it with me to the wake," he said.

"Gus was a loyal friend. As his colleague in the Legislature, I greatly admired his commitment and dedication to make life better for kids," said Cantens. "It often came at his own political peril. Yet he never wavered. His work and advocacy on their behalf will be greatly missed."

Barreiro put his eight-year political career on the line on more occasions than just during the Dozier intervention. 

In 2003 when an Opa-locka teen died of a ruptured appendix in a Miami lockup, an outraged Barreiro demanded from House Speaker Johnnie Byrd -- and was granted -- embarrassing hearings. Which angered Gov. Bush and led to the resignation of Bush's close friend, then-Juvenile Justice Secretary William ‘Bill’ Bankhead.

Three years later Barreiro took up 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson's cause. Anderson was "restrained to death" at a military-style boot camp in Bay County. The events leading up to Martin’s death were recorded on video and though the Bush administration had refused to release it, Barreiro was allowed a private showing. Later, his outraged comments, that the boy had been “flung around like a rag doll” before his death, led legislators to vote to close forever every juvenile boot camp in the state.

Those two incidents preceded Dozier and the subsequent discovery of dozens of children's bodies buried on the property.

Altogether, Barreiro's passion and his ability to simultaneously fire up Floridians and anger local and state officials, took its toll. Barreiro lost his Department of Juvenile Justice job "after investigators claimed to have found pornography on his work computer -- a charge he emphatically denied, saying he was punished for his advocacy." 

Prieguez told SSN his friend was set up. "Does anybody really believe Gus is so dumb he would leave pornography on a work computer? It's completely absurd." 

In 2006, Barreiro received a Champions for Children award for public policy from The Children’s Trust, and in the same year he received the Ira Lipman Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency for his dedication and hard work in juvenile justice.

"This is not something that came to (Barreiro) late in life," Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jeri Beth Cohen told the Herald. "He had an abiding commitment to helping children and adolescents through troubled times. He has been a tremendous champion. We lost one of the great children's advocates in the state."

David Lawrence Jr., retired Miami Herald publisher and chairman of the Children’s Movement who knew Barreiro as well as anyone over the last 30 years, said Barreiro is a great loss for Florida. "Gus was simply among the finest people I have ever known," he told Carol Mabin Miller. "Loved people, and they loved him. A heart and soul for service. He often would call me ‘Dad.’ For me, he was a much loved son.” 

 Barreiro is survived by his wife, Rosie; two daughters, Natalie and Nicole; his brother, Bruno Barreiro; his father, also Bruno Barreiro; his mother, Iraida; and his granddaughter, Isabel.

The viewing is set for 5 p.m. to 12 a.m. Monday, Aug. 19 at Memorial Plan Westchester Funeral Home, 9800 SW 24th St., Miami, FL 33165.

The funeral procession will be at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday to Flagler Memorial Park, 5301 W. Flagler St., Miami, FL 33134.

In lieu of flowers, Barreiro’s family along with The Children’s Trust has designated a memorial fund in his name at @Voices4Children. Donations can be made online to Voices For Children Foundation in honor of Gus Barreiro by clicking HERE.

Reach Nancy Smith at or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith

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