Judge allows suit against DCF, others to proceed for Naples girl abused in foster care

NAPLES —He had an alcohol problem, a drunken driving arrest, a juvenile rap sheet and was the target of a restraining order, so he was turned down twice after applying to be a foster fatheYet when Jeff Allen Woodring of Golden Gate applied with his wife, Kathy, they were approved as foster parents for a sexually abused 13-year-old girl, who later claimed they drank alcohol and smoked marijuana together, and he molested and raped her.

He was arrested and sued.

The 2008 lawsuit by the woman, now 22, overcame a hurdle last month after a Collier judge denied a motion by Ruth Cooper Center to drop the complaint, which also targets the state Department of Children and Families, Family Preservation Services of Florida, David Lawrence Mental Health Center, and Children’s Network of Southwest Florida.

This month, Children’s Network filed a notice of a proposed confidential settlement, a routine move aimed at possibly recouping its legal fees.

As the civil case heads to trial, Woodring, who maintains his innocence, remains free on $75,000 bond and wears an ankle monitor pending his criminal trial in late September.

“It was totally inappropriate to place a sexually abused teenage girl alone with an older man in a small guest house,” said the woman’s attorney, Richard Filson of Sarasota, who will be there to support the Naples woman at Woodring’s criminal trial.

Filson is the attorney who won a $1.2 million award from DCF for 26-year-old Pierreisna Archille and her daughter, now 9.

Archille’s former foster father was her daughter’s father. Bonifacio “Bennie” Velazquez, 74, of Immokalee, was released from state prison in 2008 after serving 6½ years for molesting Archille’s baby sister and repeatedly raping Archille, who has the mental abilities of a first-grader.

Bonifacio “Bennie” Velazquez

DCF, which oversees the subcontractors that provided care for the foster daughter in the latest case, declined comment, but said abuse within foster homes is highly unusual.

“We’re exceedingly careful with these children,” DCF spokeswoman Erin Gillespie said Friday. “It’s very rare, but one case is too many where these children have already suffered.”

Gillespie cited an intensive questionnaire and interview process that enables DCF to weed out unsuitable foster parents. Applicants are asked about their childhoods, discipline theories, how they treated their children, how they were treated as children, and their sexual lives — what’s appropriate, normal and what’s abuse.

The Woodrings operated a special therapeutic home for abused children with behavioral needs that exceeded basic foster care.

“Those parents have to take extra training to be foster parents ... to deal with a child with more issues,” Gillespie said. “It’s extremely rare that we have an abuse or neglect report for a foster home.”

“The very last thing we would want for a child in a foster home is to be abused again because we know that these children have been abused or neglected and they are vulnerable,” she added. “That’s why the process is so thorough.”

The lawsuit says the girl and her two siblings were placed in the Woodring home in 2000, but the couple separated in 2003 and he moved into a small, adjacent guest house with the girl, then 16.

“While living with the Woodrings, (she) had developed a substance-abuse problem,” says the lawsuit, amended last year to add DCF. “Jeff Woodring provided and consumed alcohol and marijuana with (her).”

The lawsuit says she was last sexually abused in January 2006, when Collier sheriff’s deputies were alerted by DCF and the home was shut down. Woodring was arrested four months later and faces life in prison if convicted.

The lawsuit alleges the girl suffered physical trauma, emotional anguish, shame, humiliation, insecurity, self-revulsion and damage to her self-esteem. She also suffered medical problems, including suicide attempts, that prompted medical bills.

The lawsuit seeks damages for battery, negligence and vicarious liability, contending DCF and its subcontractors are liable as employers of a foster parent because they placed the girl in a position to be molested by licensing and relicensing an unfit foster parent who twice was rejected due to disqualifying offenses.

The lawsuit contends the agencies had a duty to monitor, supervise and ensure her safety and that they knew or should have known of the abuse.

At a May hearing before Collier Circuit Judge Cynthia Pivacek, Filson argued Woodring never should have been licensed.

“That ought to be enough,” Filson told the judge, citing Woodring’s alcohol abuse and domestic violence history.

But attorney Joel Roth of Miami, who represents Ruth Cooper Center, contended it shouldn’t be liable because Woodring was required to adhere to duties under their contract.

“The minute you are performing a sexual assault, you are no longer acting within the course of your employment,” Roth argued, citing a prior court ruling in which an insurer refused to cover a deputy who raped a woman he’d promised not to arrest if she agreed to have sex.

“Jeff Woodring is a foster parent,” Roth said. “He is not authorized under any circumstances to assault, molest or sexually abuse a foster child. He is not acting in furtherance of his employer’s intentions. There can be no liability.”

Filson, however, cited a different court ruling in which a trooper who stopped a girl walking home from elementary school told her she was a theft suspect, drove her to a remote area and molested her.

Filson contended that, like that trooper, Woodring was only able to sexually assault his foster daughter because he was employed as a foster father and raped her under the scope of his duties.

Under a motion to dismiss, a judge must take a plaintiff’s allegations as factually true, allowing a lawsuit to move to the next stage if there are no other defects. Pivacek denied Roth’s motions to dismiss the case.

The defendants can seek dismissal later by filing a motion for summary judgment, which means a judge rules there are no factual issues to be tried and that the lawsuit can be decided on certain facts without a trial.