TAMPA — The Tampa charity Starting Right, Now has announced it is altering a policy of sometimes suing former clients — among them troubled or homeless teenagers — for potentially large sums of money if they quit the group's program or are expelled for breaking rules.
In a column published Sunday on the op-ed page of the Tampa Bay Times, Tampa Bay Rays president Matt Silverman, chairman of the charity's board of directors, said teens would no longer be held responsible for repaying amounts more than $2,000.
The move comes after the Times reported last month that Starting Right, Now had sued two teenagers who did not complete its program for thousands of dollars. The nonprofit asserted the young women were obligated under contracts they had signed to repay money spent on them for such expenses as rent, furniture and, in one instance, a Christmas tree.
"Community support and involvement are essential to the success of Starting Right, Now, and the discussion and input generated by these news stories has been valuable," Silverman wrote in his column. "As a result, our nonprofit has modified its policy so that students who withdraw or are removed from the program will be expected to reimburse the program for only selected expenses and property (not to exceed $2,000)."
He continued, "This change eliminates any undue burden on a student while preserving the spirit of accountability that is central to the success of the program. Starting Right, Now will be applying this policy to all current and former students including those mentioned in recent articles."
It was unclear exactly what kinds of expenses would be subject to possible litigation under the charity's new approach, or how much money Starting Right, Now will now be seeking from the two former clients it has sued. Silverman and Vicki Sokolik, the nonprofit's founder and executive director, did not return calls Monday.
Bode'Sha Speed, 18, who was sued for $18,245 by the charity in May because she "quit the program" and "terminated the contract" with the nonprofit, said she was not impressed with the policy change. Speed said she is seeking to hire an attorney to fight any claims Starting Right, Now continues to press against her in court.
"That doesn't mean anything to me," Speed said of Silverman's announcement. "You're wrong in the first place. Don't pull your hand halfway back."
She added, "They're not getting a dime out of me as long as I can help it."
Diana Padjune, 19, said she had not heard from the charity about any changes to the suit against her for $3,006. She said she agreed to a payment plan last year without hiring an attorney and has already repaid $220. The charity sued Padjune, alleging "repeated and material violations of the applicable rules."
Starting Right, Now has grown into one of Tampa Bay's most well-regarded charities since its establishment five years ago. At the core of its program is a contract, signed by teenage clients, agreeing to a tough set of restrictions on their personal lives in exchange for mentoring and financial help with housing, clothes and other expenses.
The charity's change to its litigation policy may not assuage some critics. Experts on teen homelessness say it is unprecedented for a nonprofit to sue for any sum of money from teens it could not successfully help.
"It's just kind of a shock to think that someone who wants to help these kids is now burdening them with this debt," said Nan Roman, president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, an organization whose research Silverman cited in his Sunday Times column. Capping the amount of potential lawsuits at $2,000, Roman said, "doesn't really change anything."
Silverman wrote in his column that removal from Starting Right, Now is "very rare" and "comes only after serious misconduct and repeated warnings."
Peter Jamison can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3337. Follow him on Twitter @petejamison.