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."
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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.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6245.