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How did DCF miss warnings of neglect?

A panel finds a litany of problems with the Allains were ignored by the agency. But how could this happen?


The handwritten note asked the Pine Grove Elementary school teacher to stop feeding snacks to the skinny first-grader.

She had started cursing, and until she learned to bite her tongue, the 6-year-old couldn't eat goodies, according to a note caregiver Lori Allain wrote March 6, 2001.

Over the next three years, the girl would grow no taller, and her weight plummeted by 25 percent to a frail and bony 29 pounds, until she was seized - dehydrated and near death - from the Allains' care in May.

The note is among dozens of bizarre disciplinary tactics used to punish the girl and her half brother's bad behavior during their four-year stay with the Allains, according to Department of Children and Families case files.

An independent panel recently criticized caseworkers and DCF managers, in a report released Tuesday, for overlooking years of "red flags" of mistreatment and abuse that proved the children should not have been left in the Allains' care.

Already, the agency has implemented half of the panel's recommendations to avoid such overlooked abuse in the future.

In addition, DCF case file pages released last week illustrate small but clear examples of ignored problems that employees saw, noted but never followed up or questioned. The problems ranged from concerns about the Allains' chronically messy, roach-infested mobile home to their abusive punishments, such as withholding food and giving the children bad haircuts.

"It is very important that you too withhold snacks, otherwise what I do at home is meaningless," Lori Allain wrote, explaining her request that teachers subscribe to her disciplinary style. She had taken in the malnourished and abused siblings nine months earlier.

The documents give a few early clues about how some caseworkers ignored signs, such as blindly accepting the Allains' elaborate, and often concocted, explanations for the girl's weight loss, the boy's running away and other problems.

"Everyone from DCF believed Lori Allain's lies. Fraudulent facts were presented as true, but never verified," wrote retired Judge Scott Bernstein who was on the panel, but was out of the country last week.

But the records don't explain why the siblings were left in the Allain household for so long, even after an adoption agency deemed the Allains unfit caretakers in May 2002. State workers had made no other attempts to locate better adoption prospects.

The case didn't merit a closer look until May 8, when the boy, now 14, ran away from the Allains - his third documented escape attempt. He told law enforcement that he had been punched in the stomach and his life was threatened. He was accused of stealing medications and sneaking food underneath a bedroom door for his 10-year-old sister, who had been locked up for days at a time.

A week later, state and county law enforcement found and removed the severely dehydrated, malnourished girl from the Allains' care. She was taken to All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg and gained 23 pounds in DCF custody over the following weeks. She showed no signs of the "eating disorder" caregiver Lori Allain claimed she had, officials said.

DCF blamed the weeklong delay on a communication lapse, because the Pasco County Sheriff's Office took a day or two to notify them after they had picked up the boy. Also, attempts to find the Allains at their house were unsuccessful. The couple was later found at their daughter's home.

Lori and Arthur "Tommy" Allain were arrested June 18 and have pleaded not guilty to child abuse and neglect charges.

The Allains maintain they did nothing wrong and blame the state agency for leaving the siblings in their care without adequately preparing them for raising troubled children. They deny accusations that they manipulated caseworkers and mistreated the children.

"I feel the system failed these kids," said Lori Allain, who housed the children, although she was not paid monthly or monitored as a foster parent. "We had no training whatsoever, and I didn't know what to do with these kids. All I can do is the best I can do."

When the two children were placed with Allains in June 2000, they were already malnourished, beaten with belts and neglected, records state. Their mother, Sonya Guntor, admitted to neglecting the children when she was drinking but never acknowledged that she had abused them.

The Allains were friends with Guntor and occasionally took in the two children when their mother was drunk, case files said.

The independent panel said the agency acted correctly by removing the children from their mother and considering the Allains as short-term guardians, since they knew the children.

But the first mistakes were made when caseworkers did not inquire about the Allains' disciplinary style and unkempt home environment. And they also did not talk to the Allains about typical childhood development patterns of abuse victims.

State workers also broke state law, by allowing the Allains to keep the children before the agency ran a criminal background check. The couple's criminal record, including felony drug trafficking and drunk driving convictions, should have disqualified them as caregivers. When state workers learned of the charges, they documented but ignored them.

One of the clearer and more dangerous disciplinary tactics emerged as early as October 2000. The Allains withheld food from the children when they were bad or as a stopgap measure to prevent them from hoarding or bingeing snacks.

In March 2001, not long after writing the note to the Pine Grove teacher, Lori Allain also told the caseworker that she was revoking the girl's "special food treats," because she was hitting boys in the crotch on the school bus and cursing.

In June 2002, a caseworker noticed that the girl, then 8 years old, appeared thinner, but she accepted Lori's assurances that the entire family was going to the doctor for check ups. But, the caseworker did not follow-up, and there are no medical records of the girl getting weighed or going to a doctor's office between March 2002 and May 2004, when she was picked up weighing 29 pounds.

Lori Allain blamed the girl's weight on her half brother, whom she accused of overfeeding his sister in the middle of the night, causing her to binge and then throw up.

"How did we have a "thin' child when we were told she was overeating and that snacks should be taken away from her at school?" asked panel member Trudy Petkovich, executive vice president of the Florida State Foster Adoptive Parent Association, Inc. in Miami.

In September 2001, the boy, then 11 years old, ran away for two days, he said, because the family laughed at him when he fell over while playing a game. Lori Allain told sheriff's deputies that she later "realized that they should not have laughed at him, because of his mental state."

When sheriff's deputies found the boy lost in the woods, he told them how Lori Allain had shaved his head because he hadn't taken a bath for several days. She also sent him to school wearing a sign around his neck to remind him to catch the bus, which he had missed a few times after school.

The panel deemed these punishments "inappropriate discipline" and "humiliating."

"A note to his teacher would have served the same purpose," the independent panel reported, noting the incidents as signs of mistreatment. "Many of these allegations were confirmed through statements made by Lori Allain to the case manager."

In March 2002, the boy ran away again and told sheriff's deputies that the Allains treated him different than their own biological kids and that his room had no windows nor carpeting. Caseworkers found that the boy's room had no windows and the house was roach infested.

Lori Allain also told deputies that she had "DCF permission" to lock the boy in his room as punishment, but the panel noted the lock as a major warning sign of problems at the Allains.

In June 2002, the boy was detained at an Ocala juvenile jail for burglary charges. He has admitted to stealing money, as well as food from stores and neighbor's homes, agency records show. He told a visiting caseworker that Lori Allain had said to him: "The reason your mom drank so much was because of you."

The caseworker told the boy she didn't believe him and wrote down that the boy refused to make eye contact with her.

Judge Bernstein criticized the agency for blindly accepting the Allains' assessment of the boy, while highlighting how rare it is to commit a boy so young to a juvenile jail for as long as a year.

"It seems never to have occurred to anyone that (his) behavior problems might stem from problems at the Allain home," Bernstein wrote.

Another systematic problem noted but rarely addressed further was the condition of the Allains' mobile home. On nearly every visit, case manager Cathy Kelly wrote that the Allain home was messy or in disrepair, with occasional floorboards missing and windows broken. She always wrote she did not think the home was hazardous. In 2002, green slime filled the outdoor pool, and in 2004, the pool water appeared black, records show.

Panel members cited the home condition as another warning sign that the Allains had too much to deal with, including their ongoing bankruptcy problems, to care for the two children for so long.

"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 panel noted.

But the most significant red flag came in May 2002, when a private adoption company Central Baptist Family Services, a DCF subcontractor at the time, refused to approve the Allains as adoptive parents for the children, when their mother surrendered parental rights. Company counselor Laura Termini told DCF that she recommended removing the children from Allains who were not "appropriate caretakers."

But the state agency disagreed and decided instead to create a safety plan, which the case manager would monitor. No other attempt was made to find the children another home.

"DCF counsel in this case blindly accepted the social workers' conclusions that the Allains were the only available option," Bernstein wrote.

At this point, the Allains' four sons are living with one of their adult sisters. The Allains have not seen the two foster children they had been caring for since May. The brother and sister are living locally in licensed foster care homes, and DCF is pursuing permanent placement for them, DCF District administrator Don Thomas said.

"The reality of the situation is that there were individuals making individual judgments in this case," Thomas said. "Until all of us can predict human nature, things like this will happen. The most important thing to me is that the children are safe."

Times staff writer Duane Bourne contributed to this report.

2004 Aug 29