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    Ex-foster child sues eight DCF workers

    In the suit, the girl, 16, says she was treated with ''reckless disregard and deliberate indifference.''

    By GRAHAM BRINK, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published June 19, 2002


    TAMPA -- In an unusual move, a girl abused while in the foster care system has filed a lawsuit against eight current and former Department of Children and Families employees who handled her case.

    The suit, filed Tuesday in Hillsborough Circuit Court, alleges that with "reckless disregard and deliberate indifference," the defendants violated Ashley Rhodes-Courter's constitutionally protected right to be safe and free from harm while in the system.

    The suit contends that the defendants knowingly placed Ashley into dangerous homes, including with adults who had a history of abuse and alcoholism; stopped scheduling the mandated six-month judicial reviews of her case; failed to visit Ashley to see if she was okay; and ignored violations of state laws.

    There were also "gaps" in the record of where Ashley was staying at various times in the 1990s, the suit stated.

    Ashley, now 16, has pending civil suits against the state and two of her foster parents. She is no longer a part of a large class-action lawsuit against the state, because only children still in the system are eligible.

    Many suits in similar cases are filed against the DCF, not individual DCF employees, especially low-level caseworkers. Ashley's adoptive mother, Gay Courter, said information obtained during depositions in other cases that pointed to abuses by the employees prompted the suit.

    The suit asks for a monetary award and attorneys' fees.

    "We want them to be accountable," said Courter, a foster care expert who has worked as a guardian ad litem for 13 years. "We want them to do their jobs properly."

    The suit was filed against Bill Thompson, Chris Carpenter, Maurice Harris, Barbara Desbiens, Linda Altman, Debbie Adams, Nick Allegretti and Mariano Baca. DCF spokeswoman Shawnna Donovan said the agency had not had time to review the case and had no comment.

    Ashley was taken into state custody in 1989 at age 3 from a mother who abused drugs. Over the next decade she spent time in several foster homes.

    In 1990, she was placed with her grandfather in North Carolina, despite the fact that the state had taken the grandfather's own daughter, Ashley's biological mother, away from him years earlier, the suit stated. The grandfather abused alcohol and eventually was shot three times in front of Ashley. He lived, but a DCF caseworker removed Ashley from the home after the incident.

    In 1993, the DCF placed Ashley with foster parents Charles and Marjorie Moss. The Mosses were later arrested on accusations of physically and emotionally abusing several of their foster children. Mrs. Moss was accused of punching children, hitting them with a wooden paddle, locking them outside for hours with no food or water, holding their heads under hot water and threatening them with a gun.

    Under a deal with prosecutors, Mrs. Moss pleaded guilty to one count of child neglect and received probation. Formal charges were never filed against her husband, who had been arrested on six counts of felony child neglect.

    The Mosses agreed to give up rights to their adopted children. The suit claims the DCF workers knew the Mosses were violating state statutes and had a history of abuse.

    Today, Ashley lives with her adoptive parents in Citrus County. She takes college prep classes and plans to attend a drama camp at Duke University and a journalism camp at the University of Florida in the next few weeks, her mother said.

    "She's very high achieving," Courter said. "But she's still vulnerable. She's a survivor of hell."

    -- Graham Brink can be reached at (813) 226-3365 or brink@sptimes.com.

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