Ire aimed at handcuffed girl's mother

Inga Akins has been widely criticized by the public after her daughter misbehaved at school, then got handcuffed by police.

Published April 30, 2005

ST. PETERSBURG - Largo lawyer John Trevena correctly predicted that outrage would follow his release last week of the now-famous videotape.

Three police officers handcuffing a crying 5-year-old girl in braids, white socks and a neatly pressed tan dress? It was a stunning abuse of power, he concluded. A legal "no brainer."

What he did not expect was that people would view the 28-minute tape and direct so much of their anger at someone who wasn't even on it - the girl's mother, Inga M. Akins.

"I fully expected some backlash," said Trevena, who has since been fired by Akins. "But not to the degree and volume which occurred in this case."

From cable television shows to Internet chat rooms to talk radio programs across the nation, the 24-year-old St. Petersburg mother of three became a magnet for public scorn.

The disapproval is unfair, said Trevena and others, including a high-profile Florida law firm that has come to Akins' aid.

But critics have pointed to video images of her daughter ripping papers from bulletin boards, throwing items from desks and swinging at school staffers who tried to calm her.

Some said Akins was a bad parent. Some said she should be put in jail. Others bristled when she blamed her daughter's behavior on a school administrator at Fairmount Park Elementary, where the handcuffing took place March 14. Many faulted Akins for hiring a lawyer and for selling her daughter's story to the tabloid television show, A Current Affair.

She also has been roundly criticized for the perception she did not get to the school fast enough when the office called her to say her daughter was having a tantrum.

In a public drama with a real life cast of characters - the embattled assistant principal, the crying classroom teacher, the tough-talking police officer, the irascible kindergartener - Akins' role as the serious single mom seeking justice for her child has been widely panned.

Even in corners where Akins might have expected to draw unqualified support, she did not. In separate news conferences Thursday to denounce the handcuffing, civic leaders, ministers and retired educators in St. Petersburg's black community listed Akins, who is black, as one of the players who helped things go awry.

Clifton Burney, a retired social worker active in efforts to improve education for black children, said: "I firmly believe that this is a case of child abuse, not only by the school system or the police, but the parent."

He added: "I know these are strong words." But all three parties, he said, need to find ways to ensure children "behave in a respectable way in school."

* * *

Weeks before the tape was released, Akins sensed that people were blaming her for the incident.

In an interview March 17 with the St. Petersburg Times, she said of school officials and police: "They're trying to make it seem like I'm a bad person and I'm not. But it's going to all come back on them."

Since traveling to New York last week to tape shows for A Current Affair, Akins has limited her public statements to the program.

On Monday evening's show, she said problems between her daughter and the assistant principal, Nicole Debenedetto, forced her hand. "I tried getting her school changed. I tried getting her class changed. (The school district) wouldn't do anything to help me."

On Tuesday, one of the show's reporters asked Akins what she learned from the case. "Listen to your kids because they are telling the truth," she said. "Because I sure listened to mine. And what she was telling me was the truth."

On Wednesday, Akins appeared with Jesse Jackson, who asked her, "What are you doing now about it, Inga?"

She responded: "Trying to get legal representation. And I ask for you to help."

On Thursday, Akins made several comments.

On her daughter: "She's a very active child. She loves to read and write."

On people who blame her: "I don't care what they say. It's not my fault. It's the School Board and the St. Pete Police Department's fault."

On whether the girl was raised correctly: "She was raised right. She was raised very well."

On those who say she's trying to make money from the case: "Get paid for what? I want justice."

Asked what she tells her daughter now, Akins said: "I tell her to try to keep her head up. There's going to be bigger and better things."

Tim Green, smiling host for A Current Affair, signed off: "Sweet little girl. And, Inga, you're a good mom."

* * *

In addition to the 5-year-old girl, Akins has a son, 4, and another daughter, 3. Pinellas court records show she has been trying without success to collect child support from two St. Petersburg men who are the fathers of the children. The father of the 5-year-old has been arrested more than a dozen times since 1995, mostly on drug charges.

Akins is a certified nursing assistant at a Seminole retirement complex, where a supervisor declined to be interviewed for this story.

In 2002, records show, St. Petersburg police stopped Akins on Fourth Street N for driving a car with a stolen license plate, a misdemeanor. She was taken to jail, but went to jail two more times on the same charge because of missed court appearances.

She later paid a fine.

Records also show that around the time of her daughter's handcuffing, Akins was in the throes of an eviction proceeding with the owners of her St. Petersburg apartment. A note she wrote to the court indicates the problem involved subsidized rent payments from the St. Petersburg Housing Authority.

In a recent interview, Akins said the arrest prompted the state Department of Children and Families to investigate her. She said he passed a DCF review. "The focus should not be on her background; it should be on whether police acted appropriately when they handcuffed a 5-year-old child in kindergarten as if she were a criminal," said (Tricia) C.K. Hoffler, a partner with the law firm of Gary, Williams, Parenti, Finney, Lewis, McManus, Watson & Sperando, which on Thursday became Akins' new legal representative.

The 37-lawyer firm based in Stuart, is led by Willie E. Gary, whose nickname "The Giant Killer" came from nine-figure judgments against such titans as Anheuser-Busch and Disney.

Hoffler said the firm is preparing to bring its considerable resources to bear on the case.

* * *

Several of Akins' former neighbors at the apartment complex said they didn't know her well because she left early for work and came home late.

"She was a "good morning, good afternoon' kind of person," said Mariveth Rodriguez, 34, a stay-at-home mom whose children sometimes played with Akins' children.

Neighbors said they did not consider Akins' oldest girl a discipline problem.

Rodriguez said Akins' two daughters sometimes came to play with her children on the back patio, and "they were very well-behaved."

She said she is disturbed by talk-show pundits who have criticized Akins' parenting skills.

"I think they were good people," she said. Asked about the 5-year-old's tantrum, Rodriguez said, "she didn't act like that over here."

In a police report on the handcuffing, officers said Akins arrived at the school March 14, stormed to one of the police cruisers and yelled, "Why is my daughter in a police car?"

Officers said they twice directed the upset mother away from school officials they were trying to interview. The girl's great-grandparents also showed up at the school and argued with police.

Officers eventually released the girl to Akins.

"I immediately recognized that it was a wrongful arrest," Trevena said, citing laws that young children do not have the ability to participate in their defense and thus are legally incompetent.

Akins fired Trevena this week in a fax sent from the offices of A Current Affair. Now he believes her claim against the city of St. Petersburg has been "severely compromised," saying juries are reluctant to award damages to people seen as trying to exploit a case for money.

"I believe she's an inexperienced and unsophisticated young woman who is being taken advantage of by a tabloid TV show," Trevena said.

The lawyer said public criticism of her parenting skills was "grossly unfair."

"The fact with this mother is that we simply don't know what the family situation is," Trevena said. "She may be the best mother on the planet."

Times staff writers Alex Leary and Curtis Krueger contributed to this report.