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Lawsuit alleges DCF and YMCA sent girl into sexually abusive situation

A former foster child does homework before school Friday. The woman who adopted her says the girl is beautiful, but doesn’t realize it. At restaurants, she flinches when certain names are called — names that remind her of where she was when she was sexually abused when she was 7. That was nearly five years ago.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

A former foster child does homework before school Friday. The woman who adopted her says the girl is beautiful, but doesn’t realize it. At restaurants, she flinches when certain names are called — names that remind her of where she was when she was sexually abused when she was 7. That was nearly five years ago.

OLDSMAR

The first time the woman took her adoptive daughter to the dentist, an assistant asked if the girl had been sexually assaulted. "She just asked that because of how she reacted toward him,'' the girl's mother said. "If someone that's never been around her (noticed that) the first time they met her — without me ever saying anything to them — how could the counselors and the caseworkers and anybody else miss that?"

The abuse, which occurred when the girl was 7 years old and in foster care, could have been prevented and should have been recognized sooner, according to a suit filed in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court that accuses the Department of Children and Families and the Sarasota YMCA of negligence and oversight failures — allegations that the DCF flatly denies.

Officials at Bush Ross, the Tampa law firm that represents the YMCA, declined comment for this story but said child safety is the association's primary concern.

Until the DCF dropped it in early 2008 amid reports of mismanagement, the YMCA was responsible for placing foster children in Pinellas and Pasco counties in suitable homes.

Attorney Howard Talenfeld said it did anything but in the case of his client. The St. Petersburg Times is not identifying the girl or her adoptive mother because of the nature of the crime.

As far as Talenfeld is concerned, the girl should have never been in the Oldsmar home of Brian and Antonia Starmer, who are also named in the suit. He said they were licensed to care for two non-biological children on July 6, 2005, and were already at capacity when the YMCA placed his client in the home on Aug. 1, 2005.

Talenfeld said caseworker turnover was high, and home visits were sporadic.

"The case management was so poor," he said, "that she was sleeping in a bed with another child for months, and it was never addressed."

• • •

According to court and Pinellas County Sheriff's Office documents, Brian Starmer molested the girl from Aug. 1 to Dec. 22, 2005. It ended when she confided in a next door neighbor. Authorities pulled the girl from the home and placed her with the woman who would ultimately adopt her.

Brian Starmer was arrested and in 2008 sentenced to 17 1/2 years in the Gulf Correctional Institution in Wewahitchka.

Talenfeld said the YMCA assigned three different caseworkers to the girl between April 18 and Aug. 1, 2005, and that made it difficult for his client to develop a trusting relationship with any of them.

"She was a young girl who would've talked," he said. "The case worker never spoke to her alone. It was clear she was so terrified that she ultimately told her next door neighbor."

The Times requested files on Jan. 4 from the YMCA under the state's public records law. The agency has yet to respond.

A redacted version of Brian and Antonia Starmer's foster license file, which the DCF provided the Times, includes some red flags:

• When asked in January 2005 if either spouse had been arrested, someone checked no. Two months later, Brian Starmer recanted and said that he had been arrested for DUI and jailed for failure to pay child support.

• The YMCA's own study of the Starmer home indicated that when Brian Starmer came clean, he also acknowledged a weekly social drinking habit.

• That same study indicated there was enough space in the home for two non-biological children, not three.

Department spokesman Terry Field said he has no idea where the girl slept.

"Hypothetically, I can tell you that, prior to placing a child in the home, the case manager would ensure that the sleeping arrangements are adequate and safe," he said. "It is not uncommon to require that the foster family acquire an additional bed or crib when necessary. Not having the bed at the time the capacity was increased would not necessarily be a problem."

To become licensed, prospective foster parents must submit to interviews, home reviews, training sessions, reference checks and criminal vetting.

As for Brian Starmer's drinking and criminal history, Field said the offenses would not have disqualified the Starmers from becoming licensed. He said the information was taken seriously and "given due consideration" throughout the application process.

"While all information should be disclosed initially," he said, "Mr. Starmer did disclose the information prior to licensing."

The YMCA deactivated Brian and Antonia Starmer's license on July 5, 2006, six months after the victim was pulled from their home.

Antonia "Toni" Starmer could not be reached for comment. Court records indicate she filed for divorce from Brian Starmer on Feb. 21, 2008.

• • •

The girl turns 12 on Thursday. She's in sixth grade. Her mother says she's beautiful and doesn't even realize it. She calls herself fat and ugly. "Look at my teeth," she tells her mother. She has two, maybe three friends.

"It's hard for her to trust people," her mother said. "I honestly don't believe she fully trusts me."

The girl still has nightmares, her mom says. She flinches at restaurants when servers yell "Brian, party of four" or "Toni, party of four."

She knows Brian Starmer is not going to be in prison forever. "She's made comments about that," her mother said. "Where is he? Is he close?"

The girl still requires counseling, which, as a foster child, she gets through Medicaid. But her mother said those benefits are inadequate; the girl will go for a while and seem loving and happy. The next minute, she is aloof and withdrawn.

"Unfortunately, you get what you paid for — or what the government paid for," the mother said. "She wasn't getting what I would consider proper treatment because of what was available to me."

Talenfeld, the attorney, said, "... the highly specialized, skilled counselors are really not available to her.''

That's why the girl's mother filed suit in December seeking monetary damages. At the very least, she said, her daughter deserves that.

"He took something from her she'll never get back," she said. "Her innocence."

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Rodney Thrash can be reached at rthrash@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4167.

Lawsuit alleges DCF and YMCA sent girl into sexually abusive situation 02/27/10 [Last modified: Saturday, February 27, 2010 3:21pm]
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