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Child abuse charges are fleeting in Pasco County DUI cases

NEW PORT RICHEY — Alicia Idadawn Kirsch's car swung like a pendulum across the blacktop lanes of U.S. 19, just after 1 a.m. Nov. 22. A deputy, suspecting she was drunk, pulled her over. A breath test showed her blood-alcohol level at three times the threshold for a DUI arrest.

In the car with her, according to her arrest report, were two small children, ages 2 and 4.

Kirsch, 25, was arrested on charges of DUI and child abuse.

When Cathy Dothe was pulled over Oct. 9 on U.S. 19 with four kids in her car, her blood-alcohol level was 0.29 — also far above the 0.08 threshold for a DUI arrest — according to her arrest report. She was charged with DUI and child neglect.

Four other arrests examined by the Times from the last few months arose from the same circumstances and yielded the same charges.

But in each case, the State Attorney's Office declined to pursue the child neglect and child abuse charges, which are felonies, instead sending the cases to misdemeanor court to prosecute the women only for DUI.

Mike Halkitis, chief of the west Pasco division of the State Attorney's Office, said in each case just the act of driving while impaired with a child in the car did not amount to neglect or abuse that a prosecutor could prove beyond a reasonable doubt.

"We have to prove a serious risk of personal injury or mental injury to the child. That's neglect," he said. "Legally (these cases) are not sufficient."

Halkitis said that the danger to the children does not go ignored. Arresting officers are supposed to call the state's child abuse hotline. Halkitis said his office notifies the Department of Children and Families, which can do its own investigation into the children's safety and even seek to have the children taken into state custody.

He also said that Florida law provides a sentence enhancement against people who are caught impaired with a child in the car: a $1,000 fine.

"Hopefully that will cure the problem of the parent being just plain stupid and putting the kids in the car with alcohol," Halkitis said. "But stupidity doesn't equate to neglect."

• • •

A child abuse or child neglect charge triggers alarms in the system. DCF gets involved. The Sheriff's Office's child protection investigation unit does, too.

That's reason enough for deputies to continue making those arrests, even if the charges get dropped later in the process, the Sheriff's Office said.

"Generally speaking, if someone is driving under the influence with children in their car, chances are pretty good that child neglect charges will be added," said Doug Tobin, spokesman for the Sheriff's Office. The charges could be more serious if a child is injured in a car accident.

Laws protecting children's privacy prohibit officials from speaking about any cases specifically. That's also why law enforcement reports don't denote the relationships between the children and the defendants.

The arresting deputy calls the abuse hotline, which puts the case on the radar of the Sheriff's Office's child protection investigation unit.

DCF gets involved too. These investigations are separate from the criminal one and the burden of proof is different. A case aimed at removing a child from a dangerous home can still move forward even if the child neglect criminal case stops, said DCF regional director Nick Cox.

"They (prosecutors) are looking at a violation of a criminal law with the highest burden in the legal system," Cox said. "We're looking at the safety and best interests of the child with different standards of proof. We may still be able to prove ours."

He said it may be more difficult to proceed with a dependency case without the underlying criminal charge, but it's not impossible.

"We still can go forward and often do," Cox said.

• • •

Lena Maki struck another car while driving a child to Chasco Elementary School around 9:30 a.m. Feb. 1. A Florida Highway Patrol report said the child appeared traumatized by the crash and was taken out of school for the day.

Maki, the report said, had burn marks on her fingers — telltale signs of smoking drugs. She nodded off while talking to authorities and urinated in her pants when she got out of her car, the report said.

She didn't perform field sobriety exercises because she couldn't stand on her own, the report said.

The trooper charged her with DUI, DUI with property damage, leaving the scene of an accident and child neglect.

Her case is pending in the courts. The public defender was appointed to represent her. The state is prosecuting Maki, 39, for DUI, leaving the scene of an accident involving injury, reckless driving with property damage or injury and two counts of leaving the scene of a crash with property damage.

The child neglect charge was dropped.

Molly Moorhead can be reached at moorhead@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6245.

Kids in car, but no abuse or neglect charges

Cathy Dothe, 46, of Hudson

Pulled over Oct. 9, 2009, on U.S. 19 with four kids in her pickup, one riding in the bed. Her blood-alcohol level measured 0.29, according to sheriff's reports.

Charges: DUI (her third), four counts child neglect

Outcome: DUI case is pending. All child neglect charges dropped.

Phyllis Taylor, 50, of Whitleyville, Tenn.

Two deputies investigating a domestic dispute on Villa Rosa Drive in Holiday on Oct. 14 saw a blue Mazda pull up. An 8-year-old climbed out of the back. Authorities said Taylor, who was driving, had booze on her breath, her eyes were glassy and she slurred when she talked. Her blood-alcohol level tested above 0.17.

Charges: DUI, child negelct

Outcome: Pleaded no contest to DUI, sentenced to a year of probation, had her license revoked for a year, 50 hours of community service, monetary fines. Child neglect charge dropped.

Karen Hanratty, 27, of New Port Richey

Pulled over Nov. 17 while driving 69 mph on U.S. 19, almost hitting other cars. An 8-year-old was in the car, according to police reports. The officer noted Hanratty was disoriented and failed field sobriety tests, but her blood-alcohol level registered zero. The officer concluded she was under the influence of drugs.

Charges: DUI, child abuse

Outcome: DUI is pending. Child abuse charge dropped.

Alicia Idadawn Kirsch, 25, of Jacksonville

Pulled over Nov. 22 after police saw her swerving on U.S. 19 with a 4-year-old and 2-year-old in the car. Police say she failed field sobriety tests and her blood-alcohol level measured 0.233 and 0.216.

Charges: DUI, child abuse

Outcome: Pleaded no contest to DUI, sentenced to a year of probation, had her license revoked for six months, 50 hours of community service, DUI school and monetary fines. Child abuse charge dropped.

Jaime Tyson, a.k.a. Jaime Luby, 42, of Hudson

Pulled over after striking a guardrail on East Road Nov. 26 with two children in the car. She failed field sobriety tests, according to a Highway Patrol report, and acknowledged being on methadone, which is used to treat withdrawal symptoms from narcotics.

Charges: DUI with property damage, child abuse

Outcome: Pleaded no contest to DUI, sentenced to a year of probation, license revoked for six months, DUI school, car impounded for 10 days, monetary fines. Child abuse charge dropped.

Lena Maki, 39, of Port Richey

Struck another car while driving a child to Chasco Elementary School about 9:30 a.m. Feb. 1. Maki had burn marks on her fingers, glassy eyes and dried saliva in the corners of her mouth, according to highway patrol reports. She could not perform field sobriety exercises and fell asleep on the way to jail.

Charges: DUI, DUI with property damage, leaving the scene of an accident and child neglect.

Outcome: DUI and traffic charges, including leaving the scene of a crash involving injury, are pending in felony court. Child neglect charge dropped.

Child abuse charges are fleeting in Pasco County DUI cases 03/13/10 [Last modified: Saturday, March 13, 2010 2:02pm]
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