Replace Dollars' guardian, trust says

Date: 2005-02-19

JIM ROSS
St. Petersburg Times

The head of a trust fund formed to benefit the Dollar children wants the state to find a professional guardian to oversee the children's care.

Joanne Bartell said she is not challenging the integrity, skills or knowledge of the volunteer guardian now handling the case.

"However, I believe the complexity of the Dollar case rises to a different level," Mrs. Bartell wrote in a letter to the Department of Children and Families, a copy of which she supplied upon request to the Citrus Times.

The Dollar Children Trust already has amassed $7,800 in cash and $4,500 more in pledges. Mrs. Bartell, who is the sole trustee, said the trust fund can pay for the professional guardian if the state is unable to do so.

The seven children, ages 12 to 17, have been in foster care since late January. Authorities say John and Linda Dollar tortured five of them, using starvation, isolation, a cattle prod and pliers, among other techniques and tools.

The Dollars were arrested in Utah and are being returned to Citrus County, where they face felony charges.

(In related news Friday, the Citrus County Sheriff's Office announced that the Dollars could be at the Citrus County jail as soon as today or Sunday. A prisoner transport service picked them up Tuesday in Utah.

Authorities say the Dollars, who live in Pine Ridge, fled to Utah when they learned they were under investigation.)

During a hearing Tuesday, guardian Ernest Thomas said the children were fine and improving. Such guardians serve as advocates for children who have been the victims of abuse or neglect.

Mrs. Bartell, who attended the Tuesday hearing, said she was relieved to hear the guardian's report. She had heard rumors that made her worry about the children's emotional well-being.

Then Wednesday, the court convened an emergency hearing to address a medical issue involving one of the Dollar children.

The judge closed the hearing to the public, and no one involved in the case would release any details to a reporter.

Mrs. Bartell read about the hearing in the St. Petersburg Times and was alarmed.

"This has raised my concerns that not all the children are doing as well as was stated in the courtroom on Tuesday, and further raises concerns that the guardian ad litem was not fully aware of the well-being of each of the children," she wrote.

There are professional guardians who are licensed psychologists "and trained in the complex issues of child abuse," Mrs. Bartell wrote.

"Volunteers are the soul of this community and country," she wrote, emphasizing that she wasn't putting down the guardian now on the case.

Also in the letter, Mrs. Bartell said she was concerned about the lack of any meaningful communication between DCF and the Dollar Children Trust.

Although she understands and respects the need for DCF to protect the children's confidentiality, she also noted that the guardian - while in open court on Tuesday - stated the children's names, the locations of their foster homes, and even the name of one foster family.

"I am asking you to please let the trust reach out and assist the children, as that is precisely what the trust was created to do," Mrs. Bartell wrote.

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