A Forsyth County man who had served as foster parent to 10 troubled children over the years pleaded guilty Monday to sexually abusing a 17-year-old girl in his care more than two years ago.
According to testimony, the Forsyth County Department of Social Services initially investigated the allegation but closed the case without interviewing the girl. Then seven months later, the Forsyth County Sheriff's Office looked into the allegations after the girl said her foster father had sent her sexually charged text messages and a nude photo of himself, prosecutors said in court.
Steven Matthew Lepley Sr., 46, of 6010 Habersham Drive, pleaded guilty in Forsyth Superior Court to nine counts of first-degree sex abuse in a parental role.
Judge Edgar Gregory sentenced Lepley to five years to eight years and four months in prison. Lepley also has to register as a sex offender for 30 years once he is released from prison. He and his wife, Sheila Lepley, have lost their foster care license. Sheila Lepley is also charged in connection with the case.
"We cannot have foster parents having sex with the people in their care," Gregory said. "It is as simple as that."
Even though he pleaded guilty, Lepley said in court that the evidence against him was circumstantial and that the girl had serious psychological issues.
"I forgive her for making these allegations against me," he said. "I hope she gets help for those issues."
Two of his former foster children, both young men, testified that Foster was a good foster parent. Lepley's sister, Andie Pole, said her brother had taken in 10 children over the years without any complaints. Pole said the girl had developed romantic feelings for Lepley and aggressively pursued him.
Gregory interrupted Pole, telling her not to bad-mouth the victim and pointed out that Lepley had come into court and admitted under oath that he had sexually abused the girl.
Pole said that even if Lepley had done what he was accused of doing, it was a mistake and that he is not a sexual predator.
The Lepleys were foster parents through the Children's Home Inc. on Reynolda Road.
The sexual abuse started after the girl had asked the couple about sex, Detective Gary East of the Forsyth County Sheriff's Office testified. Soon after that, Steven Lepley committed sexual acts and had sex with the girl on nine occasions, he said.
After the incidents occurred, the couple took the girl back to the Children's Home, telling staff there that she had groped Lepley, according to testimony.
The Children's Home took the girl to Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center for respite care, and while there she told a social worker that Lepley had sexually abused her. The social worker contacted the Forsyth County Department of Social Services.
Investigators there could not substantiate the allegations and notified the Children's Home that they had closed the case, testified Lindsay Caffey, the home's foster care supervisor. She said DSS never interviewed the girl.
Kimberly Nesbitt, social work program manager for DSS, said she could neither confirm nor deny that DSS was involved in the girl's case. In general, child protective service investigators immediately report allegations of child sexual abuse to law enforcement and coordinate with them to interview victims.
It wasn't clear from court testimony whether the Forsyth County Sheriff's Office was contacted when the allegations were first reported to DSS.
The sheriff's office was contacted seven months later when the girl told officials at the Children's Home that Lepley had sent the girl the nude photo and text messages in which he asked to have sex with her, Caffey and East testified.
Caffey said she called DSS and the sheriff's office but was told by DSS officials that they could not investigate because the girl had turned 18 by that time. DSS cannot investigate allegations of child sexual abuse if the child is 18 or older at the time DSS is contacted, Nesbitt said.
Sheila Lepley is facing charges of contributing to the delinquency of a juvenile and failure to report child abuse to the Forsyth County Department of Social Services. Her case is pending