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Zephyrhills caregiver accused of molesting autistic teen

ZEPHYRHILLS — A 19-year-old autistic man who also suffers from schizophrenia was sexually molested by his caregiver, according to the Zephyrhills Police Department.

Steven J. Pepe, 50, was arrested Wednesday on a charge of sexual battery. Court records state the abuse happened in February.

Pepe has been the teen's caregiver for the past two years, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday. The boy's teacher walked into the house unannounced and saw the victim in his bed and Pepe standing next to him with his pants open, documents state. The boy's mother saw the same thing on a different occasion, reports said.

The teen told investigators that Pepe forced him to have sex multiple times, authorities said.

Pepe, of 3808 Salem Ave., was arrested in 1998 by the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office on a felony charge of lewd and lascivious fondling of a child. The charge was dropped, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Pepe's latest arrest report says he is unemployed. Zephyrhills police Capt. Robert McKinney said Pepe was hired by the family through a company called Challenging Ideas. Attempts to reach the company Thursday evening were unsuccessful.

Having a special-needs child can be stressful — round-the-clock care and monitoring, all while needing to work and run a household, said Emile Laurino, the chief executive officer of the Center for Independence, an organization in Pasco County that helps special-needs children and adults.

"It's really, really difficult," Laurino said.

He urged parents to thoroughly check the backgrounds of all potential caregivers — call their past employers and families they say they've worked with. During the interview, watch how the person interacts with your child.

"What is their background?" he said. "Do they have any experience working with people with disabilities?"

He said many people can get financial assistance to pay for caregivers — but that sometimes families are put on waiting lists. People struggling economically often look to neighbors or friends of friends to watch their children.

"I would still check them out," Laurino said. "It's unfortunate to talk like that. But, a lot of people have such good intentions — but they don't have the patience. And it takes a lot of patience."

Pepe was being held without bail at the Pasco County jail.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Erin Sullivan can be reached at esullivan@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6229.

Fast facts

What to check

• You can check someone's criminal history in the state of Florida by going to www2.fdle.state.fl.us/cchinet/ or calling (850) 410-8109. The fee is $24 and it's through the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

• You can check to see if someone has spent time in prison or is on probation by going to the Florida Department of Corrections website at www.dc.state.fl.us/App
Common. You can also see if someone is a registered sex offender or predator by going to offender.fdle.state.fl.us and click on "offender search." Both searches are free.

• Families and caregivers of special-needs children can contact the Center for Independence at www.arcpasco.org or by calling (727) 861-5600. The organization can assist in numerous ways — transportation, adult day centers, residential services, employment, local support groups and more.

Zephyrhills caregiver accused of molesting autistic teen 08/05/10 [Last modified: Thursday, August 5, 2010 9:59pm]
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