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Two girls sexually abused after agencies failed to disclose foster teen's history, lawsuit says

CLEARWATER — The couple thought they were doing the right thing when they fostered a young teenage boy at their Clearwater home.

Case managers from Lutheran Services Florida urged the parents in 2013 to take the boy. But they did not mention his "extensive history of sexually acting out" and that safety plans were needed for him to be around younger children, according to a lawsuit filed in Pinellas County.

The agency staff also did not divulge the boy's troubled past when the couple decided to adopt him and, again, when they adopted two young girls, one of whom they had fostered since 2012.

The boy later sexually molested both girls over a period of about four months when the girls were just 8 and 7, the lawsuit states. Both girls had been victims of sexual abuse before they were taken into foster care.

Now, the parents are suing Lutheran Services and Eckerd Community Alternatives, a division of Eckerd Kids that runs child welfare services in Pinellas and Pasco counties. The organizations Directions for Living and Jewish Family and Community Services, which is based in Jacksonville, also are named as defendants because they helped place the children and approve the adoptions.

The parents would never have taken the boy into their home had they known he posed a "known, serious risk to younger children," the lawsuit states.

"We're trying to achieve some justice for the girls who were sexually abused," said Richard Filson, their attorney.

All the agencies named as defendants declined to comment on the case. Most said it is their policy not to comment on pending litigation. The Tampa Bay Times is not naming the parents to protect the identity of their children.

The lawsuit does not name the teen. It details four occasions when case managers or care agency staffers should have disclosed the risk he posed to other children.

The first was in August 2013, when the couple accepted the boy. They were already fostering the oldest of the two girls.

Information about the teen boy's behavior, any psychological problems and the need for safety plans would typically be recorded in his case notes and in the state's Florida Safe Families Network system. Policies of the state Department of Children and Families require that case managers consider the safety of other children and notify foster parents of "sexual aggressors" when placing children.

A second failure to disclose the boy's past came when one of the parents formally adopted him one year later, the lawsuit states. Staffers from Eckerd Community Alternatives and Lutheran Services provided background information on the boy for the adoption, but it did not include his record of acting out sexually with younger children.

Under Florida law, prospective parents should be given information about a child's biological parents, medical history, education and psychological profile before an adoption is finalized. This includes all mental health and psychiatric records, reports and evaluations.

Any reports about why safety plans were needed would fall under this requirement, said Jeanne Tate, an attorney with Tampa adoption agency Heart of Adoption.

"What a shame for all parties here, including the boy, who was tremendously misserved," she said. "It's tragic; had he been put in a proper environment, this would never have occurred."

Another opportunity for the parents to learn about the boy's past came when the couple adopted the older of the two girls in early 2015, the lawsuit states. Directions for Living conducted an evaluation of the couple's home that should have included background checks on all family members. The agency should have known and informed the couple about the risk the boy posed to the girl, it states.

Another round of background checks were conducted when the couple adopted the younger girl and her brother in February 2016. The children were placed in the home three months earlier by Jewish Family and Community Services. It worked with Directions for Living to approve the adoption.

In March 2016, the two girls reported to their parents they were being sexually abused by the teen. He is no longer in the home. Because juvenile arrests are confidential, it is not known whether he has been arrested or charged.

In Florida, where child welfare services are privatized, lead agencies are judged on how well they do in finding permanent placements for children. There is a financial incentive to get children out of expensive state-funded foster care.

"Sometimes, well-intentioned caseworkers looking for permanent placements for a more difficult-to-place child don't tell the full story because they're afraid he won't be adopted and that he will stay in the system until he ages," said Tate, the Tampa adoption attorney.

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

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