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Foster kids threatened by group's childishness

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By MARY JO MELONE, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published October 27, 2002


The people going after Corinna and Steven Gourlay, the Pasco couple locked in a fight over their foster children, have never been out there, on the street, with a caseworker.

The worker knocks in the dark, and a skinny, spooked kid slowly opens the door.

The cupboard is bare. The sheets are filthy. Bugs are everywhere. The kid and his brothers and sisters have faces etched in fear.

These are the kids crack creates. They end up, desperate and distrusting, in state care. Then people with enormous hearts -- like the Gourlays -- take them in as foster children and try to love them out of the emotional hell they've been raised in.

The job is huge.

To suggest that the Gourlays are in it for the money is to suggest that they are as bad as their accusers, the civic association at Forest Lake Estates in Port Richey. The association sued the Gourlays in state court, insisting they aren't a single family, the only kind of family permitted in the deed restrictions.

The stakes got higher last week.

The Gourlays sued back in federal court with the help of the ACLU, which charged the association is discriminating against the Gourlays merely because of the kind of family they are.

The state Attorney General's Office also acknowledged it is investigating.

You'd think all this legal firepower could cause the association to back down. It costs money to bring a lawsuit. It costs even more money to argue lawsuits on two fronts. The association collects just $35 in dues from 50 or so members. That will hardly keep a lawyer in fax paper and file folders.

So far, nada -- even though the publicity can't be good. It certainly won't help house values. Who wants to live in a place where the guy next door could be secretly taking notes on you?

Maybe the association at Forest Lake Estates isn't backing down because it has succeeded before. This is how absurd things have become:

Last week, resident Roger Massicotte opened his mail to find a judgment against him for $3,000 in legal fees and costs. Massicotte, a self-confessed car tinkerer, used to fix his family's cars in his driveway.

The association sued him to stop, charging that he ran a business, a body shop, out of his home. A judge said that was not true but otherwise sided with the association. Now Massicotte, who never could afford a lawyer, is writing his own appeal.

Massicotte lost even though one of his accusers, Walter Lucas, also runs a business out of his home, a vending machine business.

Lucas, a vice president of the association, has made it more or less his practice to ignore calls for comment like mine. Same with the association's lawyer. They are that above it all.

But they are clearly not the majority voice in Forest Lake Estates, where only about one-fourth of the residents belongs to the association.

Resident Jerry Tomkinson quit the association over this dispute with the Gourlays. What's going on, he said, "is not antichildren. It's just childish."

And it has taken place because the neighborhood association has fallen under the control of a peculiar few.

Civic associations are supposed to bring a measure of control and self-determination to neighborhoods. But they work only if a majority of the neighbors participates and if that majority is able to keep the leadership, men like Walter Lucas, in line.

"We need to organize, and keep the checks and balances in place," Tomkinson said.

In other words, Forest Lake Estates needs a dose of democracy, kindness and common sense. It needs, in short, a revolution.

-- You can reach Mary Jo Melone at mjmelone@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.

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