Friday, October 14, 2011
Lawsuits Against Department Of Children And Families In Florida Again
But the repercussions from that troubling case continue today as those injured seek accountability and compensation.
John J. Edwards Jr., another foster child adopted by Lori and Arthur "Tommy" Allain, filed an amended civil lawsuit Nov. 18 that alleges negligence against his adoptive parents; the state Department of Children and Families; adoption nonprofit Kids Central; and his caseworker, Cathy Kelly.
His biological father, John J. Edwards, filed a similar lawsuit this month, seeking financial damages against DCF and three employees who he claims wrongfully terminated his parental rights, which allowed the Allains to take custody of his son.
For those involved — particularly the state agencies named in the court documents — the lawsuit reopens healing wounds.
Sebring attorney Gary Gossett Jr. represents both Edwardses.
In a letter to DCF about the latest lawsuit, he described his client's situation: "His caregivers starved his half-sister almost to death and forced (the younger Edwards) to suffer a horrible environment reminiscent of a Nazi death camp."
Gossett said the cases are the natural extension of previous court findings. He disputed that it's a quest for money.
"This is about vindication more than anything," he said. The elder Edwards' case "has truly not been about money. It's about the state's agents running over people."
• • •
The Allain saga first exploded into the public realm in May 2004 when John Edwards Jr., then 14, ran away from the Allain home and the allegations of abuse and neglect unfolded.
Edwards — found by sheriff's deputies wandering the streets — said he had been punched in the chest for sneaking food to his half-sister.
Authorities discovered the girl weighed just 29 pounds at age 10, putting her "at risk of imminent death."
Her foster parents refused to give her food because she seemed to have an eating disorder and would vomit after meals. They kept her locked in a room with only a paint bucket to use as a toilet, authorities said at the time.
On June 18, 2004, the Allains were arrested and charged with child abuse and child neglect.
The arrests shed light on an incredible back story, dating to June 2000, when the children were taken from their biological mother and placed by DCF in the care of the Allains, who knew the mother.
Despite numerous red flags, the state granted the couple full custody in April 2002 after they terminated the parental rights of the children's mother.
An independent review conducted after the arrests found DCF ignored numerous allegations of abuse and other warning signs, allowing Edwards and his half-sister to endure a pattern of "torture and starvation."
It took the courts two years to rule on the case, in part because the Allains went on the lam ahead of their trial. In the end, they were convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison for the abuse with an additional five years for failing to appear in court.
The girl has since been adopted by a family in South Florida.
• • •
The report, released in August 2005, serves an important role in the new lawsuits. It points the finger directly at the state. DCF officials have acknowledged wrongdoing and made numerous policy changes.
But the report's author, Circuit Judge Scott Bernstein of Miami, put the most blame on the adoptive parents.
"The Allains, not DCF, are responsible for torturing these children," he wrote. "The difficult question for DCF in this case is how the Allains got away with it for so long."
Bill D'Aiuto, the DCF administrator for the circuit that includes Hernando County, said he could not comment directly about the lawsuit. But he acknowledged the agency's substandard work.
"Certainly, this was a terrible case and caused us to go back and do a thorough review," he said. "We also want to recognize that we have learned from this, and we are moving forward."
The younger Edwards' 13-page lawsuit lists 11 counts. The first four aim directly at the Allains, accusing them of negligence, intentional infliction of severe emotional distress, battery and false imprisonment.
The document also charges that DCF, Kids Central and the caseworker "negligently failed to protect (Edwards) from abuse and neglect."
Gossett said Edwards, who turns 19 on Saturday, is living on and off with his father in Sebring. He said his client is still dealing with the torment endured in this case and is seeking hundreds of millions as a settlement.
The biological father's lawsuit is an extension of this case.
Soon after his son's case went public, the elder Edwards challenged why his parental rights were terminated without his knowledge. He argued that DCF didn't do enough to locate him, and the trial court agreed, saying it was "unfathomable" that a more diligent search wasn't performed.
The case bounced through the court system for years with an appellate court deciding in March 2007 in Edwards' favor.
"For almost three years, (Edwards) has battled for that right against a recalcitrant Department of Children and Families, which has interposed a pointless procedural hurdle and frivolous defenses," wrote District Judge Vincent Torpy in the appellate decision.
The father's civil lawsuit, filed Nov. 14, alleges that DCF "significantly violated the civil rights of the plaintiff, herein causing him deprivation, companionship and parental rights of his son." In particular, it attacks Richard Robbins Jr., the social services employee in charge of notifying Edwards about the termination.
It seeks damages from DCF; Kelly, the caseworker; Robbins; and Diane Ubele, the department's attorney, in excess of $15,000, but does not list a total figure.
Gossett said the case is about accountability. The financial award should be incentive to DCF to change its ways.
"It's the last chapter," he said.
John Frank can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 754-6114.
Copyright 2008 St. Petersburg Times