DCF will open files for abuse inquiry
A judge will have the final say in a case involving a malnourished Hernando County girl of 10 who weighed 29 pounds.
By DUANE BOURNE
BROOKSVILLE - Acknowledging the need to balance the public's right to know with confidentiality laws, the state Department of Children and Families on Friday agreed to release records pertaining to a 10-year-old girl who weighed 29 pounds when she was pulled from her caregivers' Hernando County home.
Once released, the records could answer questions about DCF's initial decision to place the girl and her half brother in "long-term, nonrelative" care with 47-year-old Lori Allain and her husband, Arthur Allain Jr., 46.
The Allains both have been charged with aggravated child abuse and child neglect. They also have criminal histories and have filed for bankruptcy.
A judge's final decision on which, if any, records would be released to the public, will come after DCF officials review reams of documents and lawyers from Media General Operations Inc. have the opportunity to object to the withholding of any records DCF believes should not be released.
Media General, the parent company of the Tampa Tribune and WFLA-Ch. 8, petitioned the court on June 22 to open DCF records relating to the children's placement and supervision and the agency's investigation in May into the alleged abuse of the girl by the Allains.
The 10-page petition came after the Allains were arrested June 18, when the girl's 14-year-old half brother told authorities a troubling tale of how he had to sneak his sister food under a double-locked bedroom door at night. The Allains have said they were protecting the girl because of an eating disorder she suffered. They have denied the abuse charges.
Both children are now in foster care, and the girl is reported to have gained weight.
In its petition, Media General says it recognizes that cases involving child abuse or neglect are confidential. But lawyer Rachel Fugate said in court Friday that in cases with "tragic" circumstances, the public's right to evaluate the state's failings outweighs privacy concerns.
The records, Fugate argued, are the first step in chronicling what DCF has acknowledged was a pattern of abuse - spanning four years when the siblings lived with the Allains - that left the girl emaciated and at risk of death.
"The only way to figure out what went wrong and fix it is to have public scrutiny of their actions," said Fugate, who works with the Tampa law firm of Holland & Knight. "If there was ever a case where scrutiny is necessary, it is this one."
DCF officials will now sort through a stack of records that DCF lawyer Shane DeBoard described as being about 2 feet tall. The agency will remove records it believes do not relate directly to its involvement with the children, as well as other personal information, such as psychological assessments.
Within 10 days, DCF must submit the files to Circuit Judge Richard Tombrink Jr. and to William Patterson, a guardian ad litem who was appointed Friday to the children's dependency case.
Also within the 10-day period, Patterson, who represented the children in 2000 when their biological mother relinquished her custodial rights, will submit his position on whether releasing the files would be in the children's best interests.
Once that is done, Media General will have an opportunity to make final arguments before Tombrink renders a decision.
"I will do it as soon as I can," the judge said, explaining that the timing of the release depends largely on how many records DCF wants to withhold. "The hard part is still down the line."
- Duane Bourne can be reached at 352 754-6114 or firstname.lastname@example.org