TAMPA — A rigorous contract with homeless teenagers is at the center of the social services provided by the Tampa nonprofit group Starting Right, Now.
In exchange for the charity's mentoring services and financial assistance, its young participants sign their consent to a five-page list of conditions aimed at ensuring responsible behavior.
But now that Starting Right, Now has exposed itself to public scrutiny with lawsuits seeking thousands of dollars from young women it tried to help, legal experts say the validity and enforceability of the group's contracts are open to question.
One problem is that the agreements in some cases appear to be at odds with a long-standing legal principle: Men and women under the age of 18 are not typically held responsible for fulfilling contracts they sign.
"In general, a minor can sign a contract," said University of Miami School of Law professor Andrew Dawson. "But they can revoke the contract any time, at their own will, until they turn 18 or shortly thereafter."
Dawson said the life circumstances of participants in Starting Right, Now could also support arguments that the contracts aren't binding because they don't meet legal notions of fairness. A court might decide the program's troubled participants didn't understand the obligations they were accepting.
"When someone is homeless and hungry, and you say, 'We'll feed you and house you if you sign this document,' you have to start to wonder," he said.
The detailed document signed by teens in Starting Right, Now — governing everything from tobacco use to daily curfews — states they must return all items the charity gave them and repay the cost of aid provided if their involvement with the program ends prematurely.
It is unclear how many who sign the contracts are under age 18. The nonprofit said last week that it has worked with "approximately 100" young people, but did not disclose how many of them were minors.
Bode'Sha Speed signed a contract with the charity in March 2012, about eight months before she turned 18, according to court documents. She left the program earlier this year.
Starting Right, Now sued Speed last month for $18,245, claiming she "terminated the contract" she signed and was liable for money it spent on her. Speed has not yet hired a lawyer to represent her in the lawsuit.
The nonprofit also filed a lawsuit last year seeking $3,006 from former participant Diana Padjune. She was 18 when she signed her contract. She said she agreed to repay the group without hiring a lawyer.
The lawsuits offered an unexpected perspective on Starting Right, Now, which has received praise for its success stories and includes the mayor of Tampa and the president of the Tampa Bay Rays on its board.
Starting Right, Now executive director Vicki Sokolik declined to comment Monday. The group's attorney, Mark Howard of Tampa, did not return calls.
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Asked about the contracts last week, Sokolik wrote in an email, "We have a parent or guardian give consent to a minor signing our agreement."
Yet Jeffrey Davis, a professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law, said it was "pretty questionable" whether a judge would view such consent as validating a contract.
In other cases where minors such as star athletes or musicians enter legal agreements, Davis said, it is typically the parent or guardian who signs a contract and is liable if it is broken.
Davis said one aspect of contract law could work in the charity's favor: If a minor turns 18 and continues to act as though a contract is binding, she ratifies the agreement in the eyes of the law.
Echoing Dawson, Davis also said a good lawyer might raise the question of whether a troubled teen could comprehend the risk of a costly lawsuit if the agreement is violated.
"It's a sticky factual issue," he said. "If it got to a jury, they might be sympathetic to the argument that she wasn't bound by the contract, and was never bound by the contract."
News researcher John Martin contributed to this report.