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    Mother seeks peace, answers

    A Tampa doctor wants to show that the death of her mentally retarded daughter in a DCF van crash was preventable.

    By CURTIS KRUEGER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published June 7, 2002


    TAMPA -- Two days after a Department of Children and Families employee crashed a van full of mentally retarded adults, Dr. Kathleen McCarty sensed that her 31-year-old daughter was slipping away.

    One side of Laura's face had been stitched back together, where the asphalt she landed on had shredded it. Blood matted her hair. Her sweat, tinged with blood, left a red-brown halo on the hospital bedsheets.

    Now Laura -- a mentally retarded woman who believed in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny -- asked to see the doctor.

    "I want to tell him that I think I'm dying," she said.

    She asked to kiss everyone: her mother, her sister, her 3-month-old niece, her father and stepmother.

    And Little Bit, a pet guinea pig who wasn't even there.

    McCarty, a physician, looked on helplessly. Laura gasped for breath, over and over.

    The next day, McCarty was doing the only thing she knew would soothe Laura, singing the songs she always loved. God Bless America. How Great Thou Art. Amazing Grace. And then her favorites, the Christmas songs.

    In the middle of Silent Night, McCarty felt her daughter leaving. She remembers the verse she was singing as Laura passed on.

    Sleep in heavenly peace.

    * * *

    McCarty, a Tampa psychiatrist, and two other families won a stunning $40-million verdict on Wednesday in Alachua County against Rachuel Sercey, the former DCF employee who was driving the van when it crashed on April 19, 1998.

    The van had carried seven residents of Tacachale, a state-run institution for retarded adults near Gainesville. Two residents died that day: Patricia Chapman, 47, and Christine Decker, 38. McCarty's daughter Laura Bailey died three days later.

    Cody Davis, whose law firm Davis & Harmon took the case, said he will seek payment of the $40-million verdict from Sercey, who was fired from DCF four years ago.

    "Will we be able to collect on it? It's probably doubtful. But it's really not about the money at this point," Davis said.

    But McCarty said the point for her is to show this accident never should have happened. Sercey, 42, had previously been arrested on larceny, possession of cocaine and possession of marijuana charges, according to court papers, and had many previous traffic infractions, including driving with a suspended license.

    Still, Sercey was allowed to drive a van full of mentally retarded adults.

    McCarty said she is appalled that DCF administrators seemed more interested in covering up than in explaining the details of the accident to her. And, she said, some supervisors and employees involved got promoted rather than disciplined.

    "The state still has not taken responsibility for their part in this," McCarty said.

    In addition to the $40-million verdict, Gov. Jeb Bush on Wednesday signed a $400,000 claims bill against the state, in addition to $200,000 paid previously, with varying amounts going to some of the passengers' families.

    The tale of this accident and the state's failure to prevent it amounts to one more controversy for DCF, already under fire for an unrelated matter, the disappearance of a 5-year-old Miami girl from foster care.

    * * *

    Laura had an IQ of 35 to 40, and functioned like a 4- or 5-year-old. She could feed and dress herself, but could not read or do simple math. Her favorite holiday was Christmas. Even in her 20s and 30s, she cherished opening the velvet stocking she had owned since a girl, and digging all the way through the candy and trinkets to find the orange nestled in the toe.

    Caring for Laura became too much for McCarty to do at home and in the early 1990s Laura came to Tacachale. McCarty considered the facility clean and well-staffed.

    But on the day of the accident, little went right.

    Just before 9 a.m., two security guards at Tacachale checked the van, because Sercey was to take them to Ginnie Springs, a nearby park. The guards allowed nine people to leave in the eight-seat van without checking if everyone had seat belts. They also failed to complete a required vehicle inspection form. If they had, they might have discovered that "the van's right rear tire had been plugged, causing the tire to become under-inflated," according to a report by a state official who reviewed the case.

    The DCF van never made it to Ginnie Springs. Instead, Sercey drove to her cousin's house. She went inside and drank orange juice and gin, a Florida state trooper testified at the trial. Tests later showed traces of marijuana in Sercey's blood.

    Meanwhile, instead of picnicking by the springs, the seven mentally retarded women sat inside the van, munching on boxed lunches.

    On the way back to Tacachale, Sercey passed another car, whose driver noticed the right rear tire of the van "appeared to be flat," according to the state report. He sped up to warn her, but couldn't catch her "because her speed then exceeded 70 miles an hour."

    Several miles down the road, the tire shredded.

    Sercey lost control. The van turned over, flipped and flipped again, as passengers and debris flew out.

    * * *

    McCarty believes her daughter is indeed in heavenly peace, but McCarty is not.

    "No one told me what they knew the night of the accident. And I'm very, very angry about that. And I'm very angry that they have continued to try to point the finger at Rachuel Sercey and (her co-worker) instead of pointing the finger at themselves."

    Although Sercey and her co-worker were fired soon after the accident, McCarty would like to know how some of the people in charge of Tacachale ended up getting promotions instead of discipline. For example, Mike Murphy, who was superintendent of the facility, now serves as the district administrator for DCF in the Fort Myers area. Murphy could not be reached Thursday. Nor could Sercey.

    McCarty would like to know if DCF has done anything to change.

    DCF spokesman Tom Barnes in Gainesville said the answer is yes. All employees at Tacachale have monthly background and driving checks, a change instituted as a result of the accident. And employees are required to do a complete seat belt inspection of any residents leaving the facility.

    McCarty said she hopes this verdict sends a message to DCF and leads to better care for other mentally retarded adults who live in places like Tacachale.

    "They have no voice, they have no vote and this may be the only way that something can be done to help them."

    -- Information from the Gainesville Sun was used in this report.

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