exposing the dark side of adoption
Register Log in

Malnourished girl thrusts DCF back into spotlight



BROOKSVILLE - Disoriented, the 14-year-old boy discovered on the street last month said he had been punched in the chest for sneaking food to his half sister.

He told authorities that the girl, 10, was regularly locked in a room and unable to get out.

The boy's story led authorities back to a Hernando County home where they discovered the girl had lost a dangerous amount of weight, dropping from 43 to 29 pounds and putting her "at risk of imminent death."

Those accounts, taken from court records and case assessments, have renewed troubling questions about Department of Children and Families stewardship and revealed for the first time what it took to provoke action on behalf of the children.

On Tuesday, DCF said it would conduct a "full case review" and institute at least two policy changes.

The agency will ask judges to ensure that foster children go to public or private schools, no longer allowing home-schooling. The girl in this case had been home schooled for two years by the couple who served as her caregivers.

"Schools do provide a measure of protection," said DCF district administrator Don Thomas.

Also, DCF will begin keeping photos on file of the houses where abused or neglected children are placed as a way to ensure the homes are in good condition, an issue raised in this case.

Those measures, however, are unlikely to curb criticism of DCF, given the stark accounts of a girl so malnourished that she was found with sunken eyes, hollow cheeks and skin literally draped over her ribs.

"What we have here is obviously a 29-pound poster child for incompetence," said Jack Levine, a consultant and child advocate in Tallahassee.

The case came to light last week with the arrests of Arthur and Lori Allain, the Hernando County couple who took the 10-year-old girl and her 14-year-old half brother into their home in June 2000 as "nonrelative caregivers." The Allains had four sons of their own in the house.

Facing charges of aggravated child abuse and child neglect, the Allains say they went to great lengths to help the children overcome a history of malnourishment that dates back to when they were with their biological mother.

The Allains point to psychological and behavioral assessments that show the girl weighed just 26 pounds when she came to them at age 6. Her half-brother, then age 10, weighed only 56 pounds.

The couple said they tried to help both children gain weight.

Arthur Allain Jr., 46, said the couple fed the girl Ensure and Boost in an effort to plump her up, alternating between vanilla and strawberry flavors. He said she had plenty of food, and especially liked breaded pork chops, because she knew how to toss the meat in the breading to prepare it.

Lori Allain, 47, said she took a class in Ocala on how to provide proper nourishment to children with medical needs, partly because she was concerned with helping the girl gain weight. She maintained that when the girl's brother brought her extra food, she got sick.

"Extra food snuck under her door from her brother, that's when she started vomiting," she said.

Since the two were removed from the Allains' care last week, medical assessments have shown no sign of eating disorders, and the girl has been gaining weight, authorities say.

For all the concerns over the Allains' care, documents that the couple possess - particularly evaluations of the children by case workers - paint a troubling picture of the lives of the children before they arrived at the Allains.

They suggest that under the care of their biological mother the two were neglected and improperly nourished. The documents indicate the boy was physically abused and the girl was sexually abused.

The Allains say early malnutrition stamped the children for future problems gaining and maintaining weight.

It remains unclear, however, why the girl went from weighing 43 pounds in late 2000 - after she had been in the Allains' care for some time - to weighing 29 pounds last month. Also unclear is how DCF failed to notice.

The Allains agreed to take the girl and her older brother in what is called a "nonrelative placement," even though they knew they would not be receiving regular monthly payments as licensed foster parents.

A judge terminated the parental rights of the biological mother after she was charged with DUI while the children were in the car with her, documents show. That meant caseworkers could look for someone to adopt the children.

Instead, the department decided to keep the girl in the Allains' home on a long-term placement - basically indefinitely.

Why the state favored this option over adoption is not clear. It sometimes is used when caseworkers have difficulty finding adoptive homes for children.

Caseworkers were required to make monthly visits to the girl until late 2002. After that, they stopped the visits, because her case was closed.

But late last year, her brother returned to the Allains' home from a juvenile facility, and caseworkers started returning for monthly visits, this time to see the boy.

The question remains as to why caseworkers didn't notice the girl's emaciated condition when they visited the boy.

Thomas, the DCF district administrator, would not comment on specifics of the case.

But in situations like this, he said, the caseworker would not necessarily see all the children in the house. He pointed out caseworkers only have legal authority to children under the state's supervision - not others who may be living in the same home.

That argument didn't please some outside child advocates.

"If that is true, it's a flaw in the process," Levine said. He speculated that the girl's brother "with probably just a little bit of prodding would have talked about these scary circumstances under which the sister was being starved to death or near to death."

- Times staff writers Duane Bourne and Catherine E. Shoichet contributed to this report.

2004 Jun 23