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Two men 'escape' from home they were allowed to leave

TAMPA — In April 2008, two men ran away from the group home where they had lived for years.

Lee Rowe, 29, and Chris Whiting, 33, both mentally disabled, had been referred to the Human Development Center because caseworkers had noted past incidents of sexual aggression, though neither had been charged as adults.

Over the years, they had grown increasingly frustrated by the restrictions on their movements. The group home took them on errand runs and field trips weekly to amusement parks and casinos, nearly anywhere they wanted to go, but they were supervised at every step.

Fed up, Whiting told his caseworker, a woman named Tina Hammond, that he intended to escape. Hammond, 42, knew that he had the right to leave — there was no court-order keeping him there, a fact Whiting had only recently discovered — but she worried about where he would go. She sent a driver to pick him up and take him to her office.

When the car arrived, Rowe jumped in, too.

In the conference room at Hammond's office, the men vented their grievances to Hammond and her boss.

Maryanne Spielman and Hammond worked for ADEPT, a Tampa firm that helps the developmentally disabled obtain state services.

The men were frustrated at not being able to get out of HDC. But Hammond and Spielman were frustrated that as caseworkers they weren't being allowed to do their jobs inside the facility.

Spielman recalled one Friday when Whiting and Rowe phoned her upset that they couldn't cash an employment check at a nearby Amscot and buy cigarettes and soda to carry them through the weekend.

"These guys live for their little paychecks and cigarettes," she said.

The men lived in the center's Sligh Avenue group home, and since it was on her way home, Spielman stopped by.

When she got there, a staff member barred her from coming in. She could hear Whiting and Rowe clamoring for her from behind the door. Spielman knew she was allowed to see her clients whenever she wanted, and she wouldn't leave. The staff relented but wouldn't let her see the men alone.

Spielman asked staff members why they couldn't take the men to Amscot. They told her that the center had already driven clients around for errands that day.

"Do you understand that these gentlemen have the right to leave?" Spielman told the staff.

If they left, Spielman was told, the staff would call the police.

On other occasions, Hammond asked the HDC staff why the men weren't allowed to work off-campus and was told she was overstepping her duties. The men needed more supervision because they had been accused of sex crimes in the past, HDC staff told her.

Hammond said they hadn't been charged and there were businesses that would provide adequate supervision. Ultimately, she found Whiting a janitorial job.

Spielman wasn't going to ask the men to go back to HDC, but she knew she had to tell the state that the men were safe. She called Ken Winn, the area behavior analyst for the Suncoast region of the Agency for Persons with Disabilities.

Winn had opposed Whiting's request to leave in September 2007, writing that he was a "sex offender" who would place the public at risk if he left HDC. Whiting had never been charged with a sex crime and is not a designated sex offender.

Winn, Spielman said, ordered both to return to HDC. He told the men that if they didn't go back, they wouldn't get any more money from the state, Spielman and Hammond said. Winn denies this account.

After she got off the phone with Winn, Spielman found a hotel for Whiting and a group home that would accept Rowe.

Days later, the Agency for Persons with Disabilities ordered Spielman, Hammond and the two men to a hearing in Tampa. HDC accused the caseworkers of orchestrating the escape.

Repeatedly the men told the panel, "We left on our own." They never returned.

HDC declined to comment because of privacy laws. The state declined to comment, as well, but acknowledged that HDC had been told that it couldn't obstruct support coordinators from meeting with their clients.

Whiting landed in his own St. Petersburg apartment. He hasn't been charged with a crime since. Rowe is in a group home in a nondescript duplex south of Gandy Boulevard.

On July 27, a Times reporter and a photojournalist visited the home and found the bespectacled, round-faced man on a living room couch.

A reporter asked Rowe if he wanted to speak about his time at the Human Development Center. A caretaker tried to prevent him from talking.

"I'll talk to you about that," Rowe said.

Unprompted, Rowe made a serious allegation. "I was being raped by other guys," he said.

He named two of his former roommates as perpetrators and said that he reported the allegations to the abuse line and to staff members, who did nothing. (One of the men he accused is mentioned in a Human Development Center document as having committed a rape in 2005.)

As Rowe spoke, he ignored staff members' repeated attempts to get him to take a phone call. Finally, he took the phone and went inside.

When he returned, he said he didn't want to speak to the Times. The phone call had come from the group home's residential care manager, Mary Alvarado. She later told the Times that just as Rowe had the right to speak, he had the "right not to speak."

Justin George can be reached at jgeorge@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3368.

Two men 'escape' from home they were allowed to leave 12/18/10 [Last modified: Saturday, December 18, 2010 8:02pm]

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