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She scours the street for the son they took

A Dunedin woman, deemed unfit by the state, searches for her 9-year-old apparent runaway.

Published May 24, 2006

[Times photo: Scott Keeler]
Alicia Dillard, 38, of Dunedin drives through the Campbell Park area of St. Peersburg on Tuesday searching for her 9-year-old son, Levi. He disappeared Saturday afternoon from a St. Petersburg home while in the state's care through Safe Children Coalition.

Missing boy found

ST. PETERSBURG - The state said Alicia Dillard wasn't fit to care for her 9-year-old son and took him away.

Now he's missing, and Dillard, facing a felony child abuse charge, said the state is the one that is unfit and has begun searching for her son.

The 38-year-old Dunedin woman spent Tuesday scouring the streets of her old neighborhood in St. Petersburg, stopping at basketball courts, playgrounds and recreation centers and passing out photocopied pictures of a smiling Levi.

At each stop, she said the same words to anyone who would listen:

"I'm looking for my son. Have you seen him?"

Levi, a fourth-grader at San Jose Elementary School in Dunedin, disappeared from his St. Petersburg foster home about 2:30 p.m. Saturday, authorities said.

Levi is 4 feet 5 inches tall and 90 pounds. He was last seen wearing a brown shirt, denim shorts and light-colored gym shoes with black and white strings, police said.

Police were "trying to find this kid before something bad happens to him," said St. Petersburg police Sgt. Joanne Leslie, who heads the runaway unit.

Safe Children Coalition, a foster care program responsible for Levi's case management, declined to give details.

Coalition spokeswoman April Putzulu said the agency often helps law enforcement locate children by providing pictures.

Dillard, a hairstylist, was scheduled to have a monitored visit with Levi on Tuesday. Instead, she sped around in her Ford Explorer looking for her son.

Just after lunchtime, she approached a gaggle of young children swimming at the Campbell Park pool. A young girl squealed, "Miss Alicia."

The girl, a customer of Dillard's, also knows Levi. The greeting was bittersweet.

"That hurts," said Dillard, who works at a popular salon in St. Petersburg. "Because, it's obvious, we're known in this community, everybody knows Levi and me, but nobody's seen him."

Dillard said she searched for her son with the same urgency a month earlier when he didn't come home from school.

She found him at the front of their apartment complex, pulled him into her car and swatted him with a palm tree branch several times. That bruised his leg, arm and face, she said. A teacher noticed the bruises the next day and called authorities.

"It wasn't my intent to cause bruises" said Dillard, a single mother whose 17-year-old daughter attends school in Ohio. "My intent was to give him a spanking.''

Fourth grade was a tough year for Levi.

Just before school started, Dillard moved to Dunedin when she found out that her St. Petersburg apartment complex was going condo. Levi had trouble adjusting to the new school, she said. He was suspended twice for misconduct and stayed out too late once, prompting Dillard to call police.

On April 27, authorities called Dillard and said Levi was taken into custody for suspected child abuse. A few hours later, Pinellas sheriff's deputies arrived at Dillard's home and arrested her. Bail was set at $10,000.

It was Dillard's first arrest, records show. She has no history of child abuse.

"I'd taken away the Xbox, made him read all day, no ice skating - I'd tried all the psychological things," she said.

Child advocates say placing a child in foster care should be the last resort because of the potential trauma.

"DCF doesn't remove someone unless they have a legal basis, and simple discipline is not a legal basis," said Andrea Moore of Florida's Children First, a statewide child advocacy group.

The Department of Children and Families said 645 children in its custody are missing.

It's the third time that Levi has disappeared since being placed in Safe Children Coalition's care.

On May 10, he was listed as a runaway in Pinellas Park. He was found May 11. The next day, he was listed as a runaway again.

Police said he was picked up May 16 after calling authorities. He was in Oldsmar with a group of boys.

Levi arrived at a foster home in St. Petersburg on May 17. He was supposed to stay there until Monday, when a more permanent housing situation was to become available, police said.

Sometime before he fled Saturday, police said, he allegedly told two children in the house that he was staying in about his plan to run away. He even asked one of them to come along.

By 3 p.m. Tuesday, Dillard found her way to Fourth Street S, with children fresh on summer break. Her words trailed off as she passed each group, intensely eyeing the crowds of children.

"Sleep doesn't exist. Eating doesn't exist," said Dillard, whose eyes were vacant and weary. "I'm sick to my soul."

Minutes later, Dillard pulled into the parking lot of Fountain Head Apartments, where she and Levi used to live.

A St. Petersburg police cruiser sat in a parking lot nearby.

Someone said Levi was seen Saturday walking in front of the apartment complex.

That was three days ago.

"If I allow myself to think right now, I'll lose it," said Dillard, tears welling up in her eyes. "I never thought I'd be here."

Times staff writer Jacob Fries contributed to this report.

[Last modified May 24, 2006, 04:22:53]

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