TAMPA — The Tampa charity Starting Right, Now has earned acclaim and courted donors with a singular formula for helping homeless teens: In exchange for financial aid and the supervision of caring adults, participants sign a contract agreeing to strict rules governing their lives.
This tough-love approach has bred success stories, as troubled kids leave behind the chaos of the streets for personal budgets, steady jobs and college educations. But as the nonprofit grows, some of its actions are raising questions about how far its leaders are willing to take a focus on clients' accountability.
Since May 2012, court records show, Starting Right, Now has twice sued teens who left the nonprofit's exacting program. The charity asserts the young women are liable for money it spent on expenses such as food, rent, electricity, clothing, and — in one case — a Christmas tree.
One woman, sued for $3,006, agreed to a payment plan without consulting a lawyer. The other, sued for $18,245, did not know about the claim until speaking with a reporter.
Defendant Diana Padjune, 19, of St. Petersburg, said she parted ways with Starting Right, Now after several months because she was overwhelmed with stress from school and a job at a grocery store. After being sued she appeared in court, frightened and without a lawyer, she said, and agreed to repay the charity in installments.
"I think going to a shelter is a lot better than participating in their program, because at least a shelter won't put you in debt," Padjune told the Times.
"I was trying so hard not to go back to the way I was, but after this, it made it so much worse," said Padjune, who said she is attending Hillsborough Community College.
Since its founding in 2007, Starting Right, Now has received effusively positive news coverage. Members of the nonprofit's board include Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Hillsborough County schools superintendent MaryEllen Elia and Tampa Bay Rays president Matt Silverman.
Last month, the group agreed with Hillsborough County to oversee a living facility for homeless youth off Bayshore Boulevard.
Buckhorn said he was unaware of the nonprofit's lawsuits against its former clients.
"They've done good work as far as pulling kids out of some really difficult situations and getting them on the path," he said.
He acknowledged the group's clients represent "a fairly at-risk population, so I have to believe that in some cases the kids won't be able to meet their obligations. How you deal with that? I don't know."
Vicki Sokolik, the group's founder and executive director, declined to comment on the suits but answered some questions by email and issued a statement.
She said Starting Right, Now has worked with "approximately 100" students and has a success rate of "more than 90 percent." She described the lawsuits as an extreme measure that is not representative of the program's track record of helping troubled teens.
"Before anyone is removed from our program, he or she is provided many opportunities to change behavior and comply with our guidelines. If that does not occur, we remove the student from the program and seek repossession of donated property and repayment of services, as is stipulated in the agreement (signed by participants)," Sokolik said in the statement.
"We understand that repayment may not be immediate, and we are flexible with terms. We take legal action only as a last resort, and we do so to preserve the integrity of our program and to conserve resources for current and future students."
Starting Right, Now received $816,220 in grants and contributions last year, tax records show. Among its backers is the Tampa Bay Times Fund, the philanthropic arm of the newspaper company, which donated a total of $12,500 in 2011 and 2012, according to the fund's website. Times spokeswoman Jounice Nealy-Brown declined to comment.
In court papers, the nonprofit says the women breached contracts they signed when they enrolled. The contracts require a minimum participation of 18 months and obligate clients to hold down a steady job and attend school. The stringent oversight measures also include daily contact with a mentor and not allowing family members to stay overnight. Clients must give mentors access to online bank accounts and keys to their apartments. If a contract is terminated, the teens are liable for expenses incurred by the charity.
Former program participant Anne-Marie Nemeth, 20, of Tampa said the program's obligations were worth its benefits. She credited the charity as "extremely helpful" in winning admission to Florida State University after she was kicked out of her house by a parent. "I'm extremely grateful for that program," she said.
The complaint against Padjune states she was kicked out "due to repeated and material violations of the applicable rules," but does not specify which rules. Neither of the women being sued has a criminal record in Florida, according to state records.
Doug White, who teaches about the ethics of charities and fundraising at Columbia University, said that while legal fights between nonprofits and their donors occasionally arise, he had never heard of a charity suing former beneficiaries. He said he could not form a final judgment before knowing full details of the case, but he was skeptical lawsuits were an appropriate course.
"You're talking about kids here that are already high risk for not following through," he said. "If they get off the streets, their idea of an obligation with a signature might be different from yours or mine, and that really has to be taken into account."
He added, "The larger question is, what are they doing suing a homeless person?"
Bode'Sha Speed, 18, said she came to Starting Right, Now last year after leaving the home of her mother, who was a drug addict.
"I was really excited," she said. The charity "was supposed to be this great program that was supposed to help me accomplish all these things." Speed left the program after about a year, after what she described as a series of clashes with Sokolik over rules, culminating in an altercation during a group retreat.
Speed, who is staying with a relative in Lakeland, learned from the Times about the suit, which states she "quit the program and otherwise terminated the contract."
The nonprofit is seeking more than $18,000 from Speed. Among the expenses listed: a Christmas tree and stand purchased on Nov. 29.
"I'm homeless. I'm living with my uncle now. I haven't even graduated from high school," Speed said, expressing her astonishment at the amount the charity is demanding she repay. "What money do I have?"
News researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Peter Jamison at email@example.com or (813) 226-3337.