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Justice was slow to arrive for Weeki Wachee victims of 'horrific' abuse

Five years after Hernando County authorities discovered a starving 10-year-old girl in foster care who weighed a near-fatal 29 pounds, the saga is nearing an end.

In July, the Florida Department of Children and Families agreed to pay nearly $4 million to the girl and her half-brother for the abuse they suffered from foster parents Lori and Arthur "Tommy" Allain of Weeki Wachee.

The settlement, first reported last week by the Associated Press, seeks to resolve two pending lawsuits that sought hundreds of millions of dollars in damages. It is one the largest agency payouts in recent memory, said Judi Spann, the agency's deputy chief of staff, in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times.

The final approval for the settlement will come from Judge Daniel B. Merritt Sr., the 5th Circuit's chief judge, who is handling the case.

But the circumstances surrounding the settlement remain largely shrouded.

The Department of Children and Families agreed to put in a trust fund $3.275 million for the girl, now 15, and $700,000 for John J. Edwards Jr., her half-brother, now 20 and serving a three-year prison sentence for burglary and grand theft.

"This was a very horrific case," Spann said. "These kids were horribly abused at the hands of parents who were supposed to take care of them. We wanted to do the right thing in this case."

Agency officials refused to discuss the negotiations that led to the settlement or how the dollar amount was determined. Assistant General Counsel Reggie Mitchell would only call it "a compromise."

The agency said it did not need legislative approval, a required step in negligence cases against the state that exceed $200,000, because the payment was part of a federal settlement with the boy's biological father.

The girl received more money than her half-brother because her abuse was more severe, officials said. She suffered significant emotional abuse, and the physical abuse stunted her growth. She has been adopted by a South Florida family.

The case came to light in May 2004, when sheriff's deputies found the boy wandering the streets. Edwards, then 14, told authorities he ran away from home after he was punched in the chest for sneaking food to his half-sister. The Allains kept her locked in a room with only a paint bucket to use as a toilet.

The state took the children from their biological mother in 2000 and had placed them in the care of the Allains, who knew the mother. Despite numerous red flags, the state gave the couple full custody in April 2002.

Edwards filed a civil lawsuit against the agency and his foster parents in 2008. The Allains are currently serving 25-year prison sentences for child abuse.

The boy's father, John J. Edwards Sr., sued after the agency wrongfully terminated his parental rights. He will receive $25,000 as part of the settlement. The victims' attorney, Gary Gossett Jr. of Sebring, said the terms of the settlement are confidential and he could not discuss them.

He disputed what DCF Secretary George Sheldon told the Associated Press concerning the agency's desire to reach a settlement quickly instead of dragging the matter through court.

Gossett said the agency initially fought the claim in court.

"If they were so socially conscientious, why did I have to go to the lengths I did?" he said. "Why did it take five years to happen? Obviously the system is still broken."

John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6114.

Justice was slow to arrive for Weeki Wachee victims of 'horrific' abuse 08/09/09 [Last modified: Sunday, August 9, 2009 6:29pm]

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