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Lax regulation lets sex offender work as a counselor

Published Oct. 13, 2005

David L. Adams, twice convicted of sex crimes against children, naturally can't work as a teacher or principal anymore. But he can be a mental health counselor.

Florida's regulation of counselors is so loose that Adams qualifies. He doesn't need a license as long as he calls himself a "Christian counselor" and can get a church to sponsor him.

Adams' sponsor is the Family Bible Church in Tavares, a small, independent church next to an auto-body shop on the road to Mount Dora. The church's pastor, Jerry W. Chumley, believes Adams has truly changed his ways.

"He's been delivered of this thing supernaturally," Chumley said. Adams has persuaded him that he wasn't really guilty of the crime he went to prison for, but was a "victim of some bad circumstances," Chumley said.

Those who created an exemption in the licensing law say they never anticipated a case like Adams'.

His "Second Wind Counseling," which he opened shortly after leaving prison in 1989, is advertised in the Lake County Yellow Pages as offering "emotional healing" and "Biblical answers to adult problems." He also works part-time as a counselor at a drug and alcohol treatment program in Auburndale that advertises a "Christian approach to recovery."

Some religious and secular mental-health experts say it is not appropriate for a man who has a long history of molesting children to work as a counselor, even if he treats only adults. A sex offense is an abuse of power, they say, and therapists are placed in a relationship of power with their clients.

"Putting a guy that's had that kind of background in this kind of situation _ that's crazy," said the Rev. Fredric Ashworth of the Community Church of Howey-in-the-Hills, near Tavares.

Pastor Chumley said he welcomed Adams into the fellowship because "when people sin, we still are obligated to forgive them."

He employed Adams as administrator of the church until Adams began working at the drug-treatment center in Polk County last month. Adams still counsels patients from a room in the church, Chumley said, charging up to $40 an hour. Church members don't have to pay.

Clients don't know about Adams' past, Chumley said, because "that would hinder his ability to counsel."

Adams, who uses the title "doctor," acquired two graduate degrees through correspondence courses from obscure schools during his 3{ years in prison. His ordination certificate making him a minister also came in the mail.

Charged with molesting at least nine boys, Adams is not permitted to have anything to do with children during his 10-year probation, except for his own son and daughter. His case officers say they watch Adams carefully.

"We have done all that we can do," said Barbara J. Sherburne, supervisor of the parole office in Tavares. "We went to the Department of Professional Regulation, we went to the state attorney's office. They couldn't do anything because (Adams is) protected under that umbrella of the church."

In two brief conversations, Adams rejected requests for an interview, citing the hardship that any publicity would have on his family. He warned that he would seek "legal recourse" if any article were written about him.

"My kids have been through a lot; my wife, too," he said. "Things are fine now, better now than they've ever been. . . . We've started over and we have a new life."

Adams, 44, said he wants everyone "to let bygones be bygones." He said, "I just use the principles of the word of God."

But this is not the first time Adams has gotten a fresh start by embracing religion.

Complaints go back

nearly two decades

His teaching career began about 1970 in the West Texas town of Gober, near the Oklahoma border, according to records at the state attorney's office in Ocala. Each year he'd move on to another small town.

In 1972, three boys at the public elementary school in Princeton, Texas, complained about Adams, their physical education teacher. According to affidavits, a 13-year-old said he had been wearing a tight belt with his gym shorts to keep Coach Adams from putting his hands inside, but it didn't work. A 12-year-old said Adams invited him to spend the night, and took repeated advantage of him. Another 12-year-old gave a similar account.

Adams was arrested, and on Feb. 14, 1972, he pleaded guilty to fondling the boys. He was given a 10-year sentence, suspended on the condition that Adams undergo counseling.

With that completed, Adams re-entered the teaching profession in 1974, but this time he worked only in Christian schools. He continued his habit of moving on every year or two.

In 1981, Adams arrived in Florida. The pastor who hired him as principal of Lake Christian School in Leesburg knew nothing of his troubles in Texas, he later told police.

Ocala Christian Academy hired Adams in 1983 as the principal of its elementary school. He also coached basketball and taught math, offering tutoring sessions after class.

In early April 1985, concerned parents of two boys contacted the pastors who ran the academy and said Adams had been touching their children in inappropriate ways. The pastors didn't call the police, records show. They didn't call the child-abuse line at the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS), either. Adams told the director of Ocala Christian that his teaching certificate had been revoked because of similar charges 15 years earlier.

Adams said he didn't want his past known because "it might disgrace his family and hinder his teaching," according to the records.

The director told police he did not know he was required to report the allegations. The school decided to drop Adams at the end of the year and meanwhile told him to stop tutoring.

But someone did call HRS. By the time Ocala Police arrested Adams on April 26, 1985, the number of families complaining had grown to four, with allegations of abuse stretching back for two semesters.

Then two more boys came forward. One 8-year-old said in a sworn statement that Adams touched him several times "in my front private" the year before while in church, when Adams' wife and daughter had their backs turned. Adams was song leader and a Sunday school teacher at Central Baptist Church in Ocala.

The child didn't tell his parents at the time, he said, "because I was really afraid that they might think I was lying. . . ."

A fifth-grader said he told his parents twice that Adams was molesting him, but "my Mom and Dad said that he probably did it on accident." They didn't believe him until the others spoke up.

Altogether, Adams was charged with six counts of lewd and lascivious behavior or indecent assault.

Protesting that he had touched the boys only accidentally, Adams pleaded not guilty up to the eve of the trial in October 1985. But when two of the now-grown Texas victims flew to Ocala to testify, Adams changed his plea to no contest.

That December, he was sentenced to eight years in prison, to be followed by two years' community control and 10 years' probation. He was sent to Tomoka Correctional Institution near Daytona Beach, where he stayed until March 1989.

Another man might have frittered his time away. Dave Adams put his to good use.

Earning degrees

behind bars

To the Rev. Dale Hatfield, chaplain at Tomoka, Adams seemed quite serious about religion. He would read the Scriptures during chapel. He sang solos with the choir.

When he wasn't helping Hatfield, Adams was studying for correspondence-school degrees. First was his master's in divinity from Zoe College in Jacksonville, which he received after taking 17 courses by videotape. The school provides this service to prisoners tuition-free.

Next, Adams obtained a Ph.D. in Christian counseling by correspondence from Christian Bible College in Rocky Mount, N.C. Inmates get a discount on tuition, and it's usually paid by sponsors outside the prison.

Finally, Adams was ready for ordination as a minister, which he got by writing to Evangelical Gospel Assemblies, a conservative Pentecostal group in Monroe, La. Its leader, Henry Harbuck, said the group is not affiliated with a denomination and described it as "an association of Bible-believing Christians."

Adams' theology training and experience would have been checked before he received ordination, Harbuck said.

"We're not a . . . diploma mill," he said. "We don't credential anyone until we've talked with them," at least on the phone.

Neither Zoe College nor Christian Bible College is listed in the Higher Education Directory 1991 or Accredited Institutions of Post-Secondary Education. And while the two colleges claim accreditation from various religious groups, none of those groups is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education or the Council on Post-Secondary Accreditation.

"All legitimate accreditation agencies should be listed," said Bill Wilson, associate director of the American Association of Bible Colleges. "They are not."

Chaplain Hatfield from Tomoka prison said that when he recommended Adams for the courses, he didn't know Adams planned to go into private counseling immediately. It would have been better for the parolee to go through "a testing period" to make sure he was over his own problem before trying to preach or counsel other people, Hatfield said. "How much time, I don't know _ five years, 10, I don't know," he said.

Adams' first parole officer, Carol Lenahan, said she watched his every move. She checked his ads in the newspapers that serve Lake County and Lake Sumter College, and attended his seminars on how to bring families together.

"He was very good," Lenahan said. "I enjoyed listening to him."

March marked the end of the strict community control period, in which Adams had to seek approval for everything he did. Now he must check in once a week at the probation office and keep the staff informed where he is working.

Adams is on a temporary, part-time contract working with drug addicts and alcoholics at Genesis Residential Treatment Center in Auburndale, said Executive Director Katherine Harriman. She knows about Adams' background.

"We hire a lot of recovering people, former addicts and alcoholics," she said. Genesis does not accept adolescents or children, she said, and "I don't foresee any problem."

The Department of Corrections' parole and probation service is reviewing the Genesis job to make sure it is appropriate, said Joseph F. Hatem, assistant regional administrator. Normally, he said, ex-inmates are not allowed to associate with other offenders because they can have a bad influence on one another.

But Adams, said Hatem, has "been an exemplary case."

Licensed counselors

concerned over case

Last week, Adams apologized politely for declining an interview. But he lingered at the door of the drug center, trying to explain his situation by quoting Romans 8:28: "And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God. . . "

Adams said he is the ideal person to help other sinners because he too has "gone through adversity." He said some of his friends regard his tribulations as a Job-like test from God, but Adams demurred.

"I don't think God did it. Most of the traumatic things, the destructive things we do to ourselves by giving in to temptation," he said. "Then we say to God, "Why did you let this happen?' That's not going to be my philosophy.

"For the first time in my life I discovered you can be an overcomer," he said. " "I can overcome this,' that's what I tell these guys here."

Licensed mental-health counselors _ including those affiliated with churches _ tend to shudder when they hear about the Adams case.

Leo Cotter of Tampa, who treats sex offenders, said that while he can't speculate about a person he doesn't know, "I would have concerns about a guy who has abused a child." Cotter wonders whether such a person has "the ability to form therapeutic relationships."

Adult men who sexually abuse boys are called pedophiles. A respected Toronto study found that 25 percent of those who went through a first-rate treatment program were caught repeating the offense within four years; without treatment, the rate was 60 percent.

Cotter, who runs an outpatient treatment program called SHARE (Sexual Health through Awareness, Rehabilitation and Education), said sex offenders aren't sick, so there's not a "cure." It's a deviant behavior, he said, and offenders must be held responsible for controlling that behavior.

"Most of these guys are opportunists," Cotter said. "It takes specialized treatment to really help them," including group therapy with other sex offenders.

Apparently that is not what Adams received, either in prison or after he got out. But Adams said that before he went to prison, he had something better _ Christian counseling: "That was the dimension I needed."

If Adams violated the conditions of his probation _ by treating children, for example _ he'd be in trouble with the courts. But the court wouldn't be able to address complaints of substandard practice. The agency that usually does this, the Department of Professional Regulation, has no jurisdiction because Adams has no license.

Little attention was paid to the religious exemption when the Legislature was revising the licensing law last year, according to the legislative staff. The wording was a compromise between licensed mental-health groups and the Florida Federation of Christian Colleges and Schools.

Federation president Kenneth Gary Talbot of Whitefield Theological Seminary in Lakeland said it would be unconstitutional to require that Christian counselors meet state standards. But the Adams case terrified him, he said.

"The First Amendment gives (him) the right to practice," Talbot said. "The question is, what do you do about someone like this?"