Troubled siblings' lives an overlooked trail of abuse, bureaucracy

Date: 2004-06-27
Source: sptimes.com

Long before a 10-year-old girl was found at one-third average weight, she and her brother suffered neglect and pain. Blame falls wide.

By ROBERT KING

BROOKSVILLE - The two children never really knew their fathers.

Their mother set fire to their home, left them home alone and "scared them to death" while driving drunk.

The state took them away in 2000 and placed them with family friends - a couple with a criminal history, a recent bankruptcy filing and six kids.

The story of two Hernando County children has provoked widespread outrage since their plight became public last week. The boy had run away from the home and later told investigators a story of unconscionable abuse. The girl, severely malnourished, weighed 29 pounds and was said to be near death.

In two lives that have known little hope, the one constant has been the utter and continuing failure of parents, the state, and the adults charged with their care.

"I think we have an obligation to reconstruct them as much as we can as soon as we can," said Jim Mills, who has seen such reclamations through his work with the Pinellas County Juvenile Welfare Board.

"Even at that, one enters with a prognosis that is not very good."

* * *

From the beginning, their story describes two children in need of responsible adults.

The birth mother who signed away her parental rights, Sonya Guntor, blames Arthur and Lori Allain, who have been charged with aggravated child abuse and child neglect.

The Allains blame the Department of Children and Families for not giving them the help they sought.

And DCF is blaming its caseworkers.

It is a story, revealed through case histories and court records, of tragedy upon tragedy.

The boy, born in 1989, was taken into state custody before his first birthday. Neighbors reported he had been left home alone.

He eventually was returned to his mother, but by his fourth birthday more trouble was brewing.

A fire had burned down the family home, and the mother said the boy had been playing with a cigarette. The mother eventually was charged with arson.

About a year later, the girl was born, and trouble was not far behind.

By her third birthday, the mother told police, the child had been molested by a man staying in the home. The mother was investigated for failure to protect her, but no one was prosecuted.

In 1995 the mother, then 34, married an 87-year-old man. He died a few months later, leaving behind a monthly Social Security survivor's check.

The problems continued for several years until, finally, in 2000, the children's lives with mom came to an end.

That year the boy, then 10, had red marks on his body and his school counselor reported that he had been beaten with a belt. When he talked about the incident two years later, a social service worker noticed he had chill bumps on his body.

In June 2000, Guntor was arrested for DUI with the kids in the car. The incident so profoundly affected the girl, then 6, that she remembered it two years later as one of the "bad things" about living with her mom.

Pulled from the home of their mother, the children were placed in the care of family friends Arthur and Lori Allain.

* * *

Arthur Allain Jr., known to friends as Tommy, once had his own concrete business but now was driving a truck.

His wife, Lori Allain, is disabled, with numerous physical problems stemming from a 1977 motorcycle accident that flung her body 87 feet from the point of the crash.

On her chest is a tattoo of a cross and the words, "Only God Can Judge Me." She says the words go to the core of her being.

As the children were placed with the Allains, the couple had six kids and lived in a mobile home on a limerock road in northwestern Hernando County. Tommy described their existence then as living "paycheck to paycheck." A year earlier the family filed their first bankruptcy case. It wouldn't be their last.

What's more, the Allains both had criminal pasts.

Arthur Allain once was convicted of obstruction of justice and fleeing and eluding police in Pinellas, for which he served a month in jail. Lori Allain was convicted of trafficking narcotic painkillers. Into this home, the Department of Children and Families placed two children with enormous needs.

The girl, at age 6, weighed 26 pounds. The boy, at age 10, weighed 56 pounds. DCF officials would report later that the children came from a history of neglect and malnutrition and weren't in the habit of bathing daily.

The boy told counselors he had already shoplifted, smoked pot and drunk beers and Bloody Marys with his older brothers.

The girl was described by an evaluator as "charming" but manipulative. She suffered from attachment disorder and didn't bond well with people. She rarely showed her emotions, rarely cried. She had been treated for sexual abuse.

The Allains, as nonrelative caregivers, did not receive the financial compensation from the state that foster parents get.

The kids qualified for Medicaid help. And they brought with them the death benefits that came from their mother being a widow. At its peak it reaches $320 a month.

But the Allains received no formal training to deal with all this.

Over the next two years, the boy broke windows, stole money from Lori Allain's purse and ran away from the home at least twice - once for three days. Oddly, he didn't like to follow the rules, but one day wanted to be a policeman.

Eventually, he wound up in the juvenile justice system for a year and a half.

The girl, meanwhile, asked friends at school to engage in inappropriate sexual behavior. She enjoyed setting up situations that pitted one person against another. She initially gained some weight, at one point weighing 43 pounds, but that didn't last.

Some experts visiting the home noticed signs of future troubles.

But they didn't set off any alarms.

* * *

In 2001, the Allains filed for bankruptcy for the second time in two years.

Twice that year authorities responded to reports of child abuse at the Allains' home, although neither case led to charges.

By 2002, a pair of state evaluators noted that both children seemed to like the Allains. But they came to drastically different conclusions about whether the Allains' home was a good place for the children.

One evaluator said the Allains' home was a safe environment and the two troubled children who landed there were "lucky" to be part of the family.

But another evaluator noticed that boy had a lock on the door to his bedroom, which had no windows. She also noted Lori Allain's questionable disciplinary habits, including shaving the boy's head when he refused to bathe.

The same evaluator said that if the Allains were going to keep the kids, they would need extensive education on dealing with abused children and providing proper nourishment.

Today, the Allains say every time they asked for such help they were told DCF lacked the money to pay for it.

Other warning signs turned up but seemed to go unnoticed.

Twice between October 2003 and January 2004, sheriff's deputies investigated reports of domestic violence between the Allains' daughter, Kristen Staab, and her boyfriend, Jason Barrett, who lived with the Allains.

Both times Barrett was arrested, but the charges were dropped.

Also in January, the Allains' four biological sons were involved in an altercation with Hernando County sheriff's deputies at a church youth function in Spring Hill. At least one of the boys was charged with resisting arrest.

In addition, the girl, who once weighed 43 pounds, dropped to 29, taking on a horribly gaunt appearance. Investigators said they found no evidence that the Allains had taken her to a doctor.

Finally, on May 8, the tensions boiled over.

The 14-year-old boy ran away from the Allains' home. When approached by deputies, he seemed disoriented.

But he, and later the 10-year-old half-sister, told authorities a story of neglect and abuse that closes another sad chapter in a difficult journey through childhood.

* * *

DCF Secretary Jerry Regier said his agency, which has documented most of this wretched history, says the public expects nothing less than perfection from DCF when it comes to dealing with vulnerable children.

Clearly, the handling of this case has been far from perfect.

So, the lingering question is whether anything can be done to salvage these children.

Jim Mills, with the Pinellas Juvenile Welfare Board, says all is not lost.

"Given that set of circumstances, the prognosis would be poor. But children are remarkably resilient, and sometimes they have drawn strength from people and places that we would not have thought of, and they can call upon that strength and do some remarkable things," Mills said.

The cost of such a reclamation increases with every bad experience, Mills said. But it is a price that must be paid.

"We as a civil society have not protected these kids when we were trying to protect them," Mills said. "I don't think we have an option to write them off."

- Times staff writers Duane Bourne, Curtis Krueger and Jennifer Liberto contributed to this report. Robert King can be reached at 352 848-1432. Send e-mail to rking@sptimes.com

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