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Reports detail grim life for kids

Welfare workers said the Allains' foster daughter was being starved. The Allains say she had an eating disorder.


BROOKSVILLE - On a limerock road in northwest Hernando County, a mobile home that once housed 10 people sits empty.

Out front, part of the wooden fence rests on the ground. The yard is scattered with home appliances and other junk. Knee-deep weeds grow wild, suggesting weeks of inattention.

A year ago, child welfare officials said the homestead, owned by Lori and Arthur Allain Jr., was a chamber of abuse and neglect for a 10-year-old-girl, who weighed 29 pounds and was at "imminent risk of death."

June 18, 2004, Lori and Arthur Allain Jr. were arrested and charged with aggravated child abuse and child neglect. Both have denied the charges and are awaiting trial.

In the year since then, as allegations of abuse swirled, the Allains temporarily lost custody of their four sons. Also, their house was damaged and rendered unlivable by last summer's hurricanes, forcing the family to relocate.

The state Attorney's Office, attorneys for the Allains and officials for the Department of Children and Families did not respond to repeated requests for comment about the case.

But court documents from the discovery phase of the proceedings and conversations with the Allains paint a troubled picture of the Allain household before the arrests and in the aftermath of the child abuse allegations.

The place was filthy and reeked of urine and decomposing food. Cockroaches and other insects swarmed the counter tops and inside the refrigerator, recently released photographs revealed.

It was there, in a double-locked bedroom in the rear of the home, investigators said, that a 10-year-old girl was near starvation. She was confined to the room with no bed or furniture, with nothing to do and little to eat. She was forced to use the bathroom on the floor or a paint bucket that was cleaned sporadically. According to court documents, the girl's brother believed his sister had been out of the room only 20 times during a period of about five months.

In May 2004, the boy, now 15, ran away from the Allains and told sheriff's deputies that he had been threatened for sneaking food to his sister underneath the locked door.

The girl was severely dehydrated and malnourished, her eyes sunken and skin draped over her ribs, when she was taken to All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg. Weeks later, while in DCF custody, she had reportedly gained 23 pounds.

An independent task force later released a scathing report on how DCF missed the "red flags" that could have prevented what the girl's biological mother, Sonya Guntor, has called an "unjustifiable tragedy."

The girl is 11 now and battling the effects of what doctors then said would be long-term, if not permanent, loss of cognitive intellect and development.

Both children are still thought to be in foster care. DCF officials say privacy laws prevent them from disclosing where the siblings are living and whether the girl and her brother have responded to treatment and new living arrangements.

The allegations of abuse and neglect tore through the Allain household like a tornado. Their legal troubles were a prelude to the havoc wreaked by Mother Nature. The hurricane-strength winds that whipped through Hernando County last summer damaged the Allains' home on Hurricane Drive.

Allegations of abuse and neglect involving the siblings in the Allains' custody prompted child welfare officials to scrutinize the couple's care of their four sons. The boys were removed from their parents' care and placed with one of their older sisters. On October 22, the family was reunited and began living together in a neighborhood near Deltona Boulevard in Spring Hill, Lori Allain said in a recent interview.

Despite the move, the family has not been able to escape the shadow of the allegations, she said, much to the detriment of her teenage sons.

"It think it sucks that my kids have been the brunt of this when it is not about them," she said, explaining that on New Year's Eve, the St. Petersburg Times listed the case as one of the top 10 of 2004. "My kids were associated with the case and slammed by the negative coverage."

In February, the Allains' 12-year-old son broke his hand while "roughhousing" and was taken to Oak Hill Hospital. At the hospital, Arthur Allain Jr., 47, told a sheriff's deputy that nothing had happened, but a deputy went to the house to conduct a well-being check before determining it was an accident, documents state.

More recently, a neighbor complained that her daughter's scooter was missing and accused one of the Allain sons of taking it.

"We know who you are,"' Lori Allain recalled the woman saying when she confronted her. That kind of reaction makes her think that the trial should be moved elsewhere.

"If people in Hernando County read so much (about the case), I have to wonder if we can get a fair trial in Hernando County," she said. "I don't know if we could.

"There is no normalcy in our lives," she continued. "But as negative as it has been, we have had people come up to us telling us they are praying for us and giving us a hug. Other people look at us cross-eyed."

Lori Allain is on disability and is a stay-at-home mom. Her husband is a truck driver. The two have made low-key appearances for the pretrial hearings. No trial date has been set, but Lori Allain said she is looking forward to her day in court.

The Allains' court-appointed lawyers have taken reams of depositions from 47 witnesses, hired private investigators and recently submitted a witness list, edging closer to what Lori Allain thinks would absolve them of any wrongdoing.

But on May 25, the State Attorney's Office added a third charge of child neglect against the couple. Court documents detailing the latest allegations against the Allains remain sealed, and the state's lead prosecutor, Assistant State Attorney Sherry Byerly, was unavailable to comment on the case last week.

But recently released discovery records added more insight into the complex case.

During the Sheriff's Office investigation, the couple told an investigator that the girl came to them weighing just 22 pounds, her frame so tiny she could fit into toddlers clothes. At the time, the girl was 6.

The Allains claimed that the girl suffered from an eating disorder and would gorge herself until she vomited, a result of neglect at the hands of her biological mother, Sonya Guntor, they said.

Arthur Allain Jr. simply figured the girl was small because she was a dwarf or elf, court records said.

At All Children's Hospital after she was taken into DCF custody, the girl vomited only once, which doctors at the facility attributed to refeeding syndrome. Had she not been taken to the hospital or fed properly at another home, her condition would have worsened, discovery documents said.

Even as she continues to deny the abuse allegations, Lori Allain still thinks that the girl suffered from an eating disorder and that she and her husband were better caregivers for the children than their mother was.

"Anyone can attest to that," Lori Allain said.

From a distance, Sonya Guntor looks at the Allains with anger and regret.

It has been about five years since Guntor last saw her son and daughter. It has been just as long since she was arrested for drunken driving, with the children in the car. At the time, DCF gave her the opportunity to sign her rights away to family friends or face the possibility that she and her children would be separated.

She calls it the biggest mistake in her life; she blames Lori Allain, who reported her drinking to the Sheriff's Office, records from a June 2000 child abuse complaint show.

All Guntor can do now is wonder about the fate of her children.

"You wonder if they are sleeping," said Guntor, 43, who works in landscaping and considers herself a rehabilitated alcoholic.

"You wonder if the people they are placed with are doing what they did before," she said. "... Are my children safe?"

In the last year, Guntor has called her children's guardian ad litem, state prosecutors handling the criminal case and DCF inquiring about her children.

"They won't tell me anything," Guntor said. "No one is going to help me. "Ms. Guntor, you need to seek counsel,' they keep saying. "We can't tell you anything.' Nobody wants to listen. If I had $40,000 for a lawyer, I would give it up in a minute. I have nothing to lose and everything to gain."

Meanwhile, Guntor's former boyfriend, John Joseph Edwards of Sebring, is also seeking custody of the 15-year-old boy.

About six weeks after the abuse allegations became public, Edwards, who says he is the boy's biological father, filed a writ of habeas corpus, challenging whether DCF could legally hold his son.

Edwards, whose paternity was questioned in 2002 DCF assessments, had paid child support for the boy through the court but lost contact with him. It was only after the case became public that Edwards learned that his parental rights had been terminated, court records state.

In his petition seeking custody, Edwards said that his rights have been stripped without any documentation or due process. After numerous hearings on the matter, DCF asked that the case be transferred to the dependency court, saying the district court had no jurisdiction in the case, said Edwards' attorney, Gary Gossett Jr.

After a ruling from the Fifth District Court of Appeals in Daytona, the custody battle returned to dependency court in April. Gossett said he has asked the Florida Supreme Court to intervene.

Gossett said truth is on their side. DNA tests conclusively established that his client is the boy's biological father, he said.

"We are navigating the waters of the courts of Florida," Gossett said."Sooner or later, we are going to win this case."

--Duane Bourne can be reached at 352 754-6114 or dbourne@sptimes.com

2005 Jun 20