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Agency asks to open records

A Department of Children and Families request follows a critical report of a 1997 investigation involving a girl who was killed by dogs in July.

The Department of Children and Families is asking a judge to release more internal records that involve Melissa Hunt, the 5-year-old girl whom pit bullterriers fatally mauled last month outside her home.

The records are from two investigations that the department conducted _ one in 1994, the other in 1997 _ after it received complaints that Melissa and her siblings might be victims of abuse or neglect.

By law, the paperwork is confidential. The department cannot release the material without permission from a judge.

Until now, the department was unwilling to seek such permission. Officials said the cases were unrelated to the girl's death and unrelated to a third neglect investigation that the department conducted the day before Melissa died.

But the department radically changed its position Thursday, after the Daily Commercial of Leesburg published a story saying that the department failed to follow procedures when handling the 1997 investigation that involved Melissa.

The Commercial relied on an unnamed "longtime DCF employee" and other unspecified sourcesto make its claim. The story went on to describe, in substantial detail, material contained in the confidential department records.

Mary O'Quinn, Children and Families District 13 spokeswoman, said the department now has decided to honor the Commercial's request to seek release of the records. She said officials figured that, after publication of the article, making such a request was preferable to fighting a court battle with the newspaper and enduring the resulting bad publicity.

A hearing is set for 9 a.m. Monday in Bushnell. State law allows judges to release investigative records if they think such release would be in the public interest. At the same time, the judge also must consider the interests of the child and others named in the reports.

Melissa's parents and siblings will have an opportunity to be heard.

O'Quinn declined to discuss the newspaper article, saying that she couldn't discuss the case unless the judge makes the records public.

"There are a number of facts . . . that are incorrect. When we have the file open, we'll be able to point those out, point by point," O'Quinn said.

Melissa died July 14 outside her home, off Turner Camp Road east of Inverness. Authorities said that while Melissa's mother was inside cooking dinner, one or more pet pit bullterriers mauled the girl and dragged her body into anearby part of the Tsala Apopka lake chain.

The Citrus County Sheriff's Office continues to investigate the case, with a State Attorney's Office review to follow.

On July 9, the Department of Children and Families received a complaint that Melissa might be a neglect victim. A department investigator visited the girl and her mother July 13 _ the day before the death _ and determined that the child was at low risk.

The department, pursuant to a request from the Citrus Times, petitioned the court to release records concerning that investigation. A judge granted the request.

The department declined to seek release of its other records.

Among other things, records from the July investigation showed that the investigator, Carol Pratt, falsely claimed that a law officer accompanied her when she interviewed Melissa. Pratt resigned after admitting the lie.

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