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Report: How Fla. failed 2 children

A task force details what went wrong in the case of a girl, 10, and her half-brother, 14, who were tortured and starved.


BROOKSVILLE - The Department of Children and Families ignored numerous warning signs in leaving a 10-year-old girl and her half-brother at a home where they were subjected to a pattern of "torture and starvation," an independent task force has found.

A report released Tuesday by DCF blames caseworkers and managers for systematic failures that left the girl weighing 29 pounds and near death.

"To say that this is a case of tragic proportions is an understatement," wrote Circuit Court Judge Scott Bernstein of Miami, who was on the four-member panel.

While DCF secretary Jerry Regier has acknowledged his department failed to protect the children, the panel's review pinpointed for the first time where DCF went wrong.

"The work does not meet the high standards that we expect in the state," district administrator Don Thomas said in a press conference on Tuesday. "When we fail a child, we take it personally. The only thing we can do is try to do a better job."

The case came to light after the 14-year-old ran away on May 8 and told authorities he had been sneaking food underneath a bedroom door for his sister, who had been locked up for days at a time.

The girl was severely dehydrated and malnourished when she was taken to All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg. Weeks later, while in DCF custody, she had gained 23 pounds.

Caregivers Lori and Arthur Allain were arrested on June 18 and charged with aggravated child abuse and neglect.

The 25-page report showed that caseworkers overlooked initial requirements for the children's placement, failed to conduct thorough and regular visits and ignored a recommendation that the children be placed in a more suitable home.

The report also revealed:

The Allains' criminal history should have disqualified them as long-term caregivers.

On four separate occasions, caseworkers noted that both children appeared tired and malnourished, but did not challenge the Allains' explanation or seek medical consultation.

The report found that a DCF case manager systematically missed "red flags" of mistreatment of the children.

As early as Oct. 2000, Lori Allain admitted she withheld food from the children in response to their bingeing and hoarding behaviors, a situation that escalated through 2002.

Not one of 20 DCF employees involved in the children's case over the years checked the malnourished girl's medical records.

The Allains took custody of the two children on June 2, 2000, after a court terminated the parental rights of their biological mother, Sonya Guntor. She had been arrested on charges of drunken driving, with the children in the car.

The case has been mired in bureaucratic discrepancies from the beginning.

When DCF began to consider the Allains for the role of nonrelative caregivers, a caseworker omitted her observation that the couple's home on Hurricane Drive was filthy.

Panel members also said information such as the Allains' criminal history was vital in deciding whether the children should have been placed with them. Both Lori and Arthur Allain have criminal convictions; he for DUI and his wife for drug trafficking. Both have filed for bankruptcy three times, records show.

The home study, however, was approved before the agency finished complete criminal background checks which could have ended the Allains' stewardship.

In interviews with the panel, the case manager admitted the home was in a constant state of disrepair but said she did not believe it was hazardous. Code enforcement violations on their property are pending.

"The fact that the home was typical for the neighborhood in which it was located appears to have contributed to the case manager's complacency," the report stated.

An adoption services contractor, Central Baptist Family Services, told the panel in June that there was "no way" her company would have approved the Allains as adoptive parents, based on her visit to the home in May 2002.

The report repeatedly accused Lori Allain of manipulating caseworkers. It also said caseworkers only listened to her side of the story without checking the physical and mental condition of the children.

Bernstein said that Lori Allain created an elaborate story to explain away the girl's weight loss, saying she was suffering from an eating disorder and was on a special diet.

"The Allains, not DCF, are responsible for torturing these children," Judge Bernstein wrote. "The difficult question for DCF in this case is how the Allains got away with it for so long."

Lori Allain denied such allegations on Tuesday. She blamed the state agency for leaving the troubled children in her care without providing adequate nutritional training.

"Of course, they want to dump it all on us, because it's easy to blame us," said Allain, who claimed she gave monthly reports to caseworkers who visited her home for regular checkups.

"DCF kept these children in my home because they had nowhere else to place them," Lori Allain said. "I told them, if you're not going to give us the help we need to keep these kids, you're going to have to take them elsewhere."

As of Tuesday, no one had been reprimanded in the case and DCF had adopted 15 of the 29 recommendations from the the task force, according to DCF spokesman Bill Spann.

District administrator Thomas said Tuesday the agency will use the task force's findings to determine what, if any, disciplinary actions will be taken against the more than 20 employees who worked on the case.

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

2004 Aug 25