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Foster family goes on offense

With the ACLU's backing, a Pasco couple sue their homeowners group, alleging its actions violate the federal Fair Housing Act.

By CARY DAVIS, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 23, 2002


With the ACLU's backing, a Pasco couple sue their homeowners group, alleging its actions violate the federal Fair Housing Act.

TAMPA -- The Forest Lake Estates Civic Association has the right to tell families in the Port Richey neighborhood what their homes should look like on the outside.

But the civic association has no authority, according to a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday, to regulate the makeup of families in the neighborhood.

"At least not in America," attorneys for Steven and Corinna Gourlay said in a letter Tuesday to the civic association.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Tampa, marks a dramatic shift in an escalating battle pitting the civic association's authority to enforce deed restrictions against the Gourlays' right to raise foster children in Forest Lake Estates.

Before Tuesday, the civic association had played the role of accuser. In a letter, and a lawsuit filed two weeks ago in state court, the association alleged that the Gourlays had violated deed restrictions by taking in five foster children. The Gourlays, the association contends, do not meet the definition of a "single family."

On Tuesday, the Gourlays, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, went on the offensive. They alleged in the lawsuit that the civic association's actions amount to a violation of the federal Fair Housing Act.

That law prohibits discriminatory housing practices on the basis of race, religion, sex, national origin and familial status.

"We don't think anybody has the right to define what a family is," said Matthew Moore, a Tampa attorney with the firm of Shook, Hardy & Bacon. The firm is handling the case, at no charge, on behalf of the ACLU of Florida.

Moore said the law is on the side of the Gourlays, who have legal custody of the five foster children. That qualifies the foster children as members of the Gourlay family under the federal Fair Housing Act, Moore said. Moreover, he said, a federal appeals court ruled in 1991 that foster children fall under the definition of "familial status."

The association's lawyer, Donald Peyton, who lives in Forest Lake Estates, did not return a call Tuesday seeking comment. The association's vice president, Walter Lucas, who is named individually in the suit, also did not return a message from a Times reporter.

The Gourlays said Lucas started the movement to oust the foster children. Corinna Gourlay said Lucas once accused her of running a day care business out of her home. The foster children range in age from 3 to 14. The Gourlays also have four children of their own in their 1,700-square-foot home.

The lawsuit seeks an injunction preventing the association from "coercing, intimidating, threatening and/or discriminating against" the Gourlays. It also seeks unspecified punitive damages against the association for "wanton and reckless" actions.

Moore said the lawsuit also serves to make a point: Communities should embrace foster parents, not discourage them.

"What the civic association is doing is insane," he said. "It's a clear case of abuse of power."

Moore is asking the civic association to drop its state lawsuit against the Gourlays. That suit, which asks a judge to rule on whether foster children violate the deed restrictions of Forest Lake Estates, is pending.

Steven and Corinna Gourlay joined their lawyers for an afternoon news conference on the steps of the federal courthouse in downtown Tampa. Facing a bank of television cameras, they vowed to push the fight on behalf of foster parents everywhere.

"Our children are our children," said Corinna Gourlay. "They're not leaving."

But the much-publicized controversy is taking a toll on the foster children, she said. "They think people around here hate them."

-- Cary Davis covers courts in west Pasco County. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6236, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6236. His e-mail address is cbdavis@sptimes.com.

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