Published: Saturday, July 13, 2013 at 6:02 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, July 13, 2013 at 6:02 p.m.
SARASOTA COUNTY – A woman who was sexually abused as a foster child is suing three agencies — including the Sarasota YMCA — alleging that the groups did not protect her from a known molester.
The 20-year-old woman — who filed under the pseudonym Lisa in Sarasota County Circuit Court — is seeking more than $15,000 from her foster parents, the Florida Department of Children and Families, the Sarasota YMCA and Family Preservation Services.
The agencies missed the warning signs before Lisa was placed into an abuser’s home, and they lacked the oversight to stop the years-long abuse, the suit alleges.
The allegations of negligence include the agencies’ failure to keep Lisa safe, properly screen caregivers who knowingly gave false information about their criminal background, and adequately investigate Lisa’s well-being during home visits.
The lawsuit, filed recently in Sarasota County Circuit Court, also names her foster parents, Mark and Nancy Helmig.In November, Mark Helmig pleaded guilty to one count of sexual battery. He was sentenced to five years’ probation and placed on the state’s sexual offender list.
Despite that, Helming maintains he is innocent.
“I don’t have any proof I did or I didn’t do this. I can’t prove it. They’re making accusations, and I can’t prove it,” Helmig, 48, said on Friday. “I’m disgusted with the whole situation.”
Lisa had a chaotic childhood. Her father is dead. Her biological mother struggled with substance abuse and lived in a home where drug deals took place.
But some warning signs were missed early on, the lawsuit alleges.
The suit alleges that before Lisa was placed in the Helmigs’ home, Mark Helmig lied to DCF when he said his ex-wife’s restraining order against him had been dropped. Records show he was found guilty of two counts of violating the order, according to the suit.
The sexual abuse started a month after Lisa moved in with the Helmigs, she later told investigators with the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office.
Nancy Helmig, like her husband, denies that any wrongdoing took place.
Lisa, who came from a home with no rules or structure, lied about the abuse so she could get placed somewhere else, Nancy said.
She said Lisa was unhappy doing even routine chores, such as feeding the dog.
“A nightmare,” Nancy Helmig said. “I thought I was doing something nice for somebody. The allegations against myself and my husband are unfounded and untrue.”
Lisa told law enforcement authorities that Mark Helmig came into her bedroom to touch her.
During the next two years, her foster father tried to have sex with her 10 different times but intercourse only occurred three times because Lisa had been able to get away, according to a probable cause affidavit from the Sheriff’s Office.
The abuse is said to have occurred most typically on weekends. The last time was November 2009, when Helmig pushed her onto his bed and held her down, the affidavit said.
Lisa was not the first child to accuse Mark Helmig of abuse. In February 2009, there was a tip provided through the DCF abuse hotline claiming that he had molested a boy, and that other children might be at risk in the Helmigs’ home, according to the sheriff’s investigative report.
One female said Mark Helmig molested her from age 9 to 14. She also told a sheriff’s detective that a boy told her he’d awakened to find Mark molesting him. The boy reported it to his mother, who told him he was dreaming, the 2009 report said.
Later the female refused to cooperate with law enforcement. “Her grandmother and grandfather don’t believe her and don’t want her going around ‘stirring up stuff,'” the report said.
The Sheriff’s Office dropped the investigation but Mark Helmig remained a suspect, said sheriff’s Capt. Jeff Bell.
“He’s a monster,” Bell said. “His history shows he’s a serious predator.”
“The children didn’t cooperate,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we don’t believe he committed these crimes.”
The lawsuit also said there were allegations against Nancy Helmig.
On Dec. 10, 2007, someone calling the DCF abuse hotline reporting that Nancy was screaming at children in her home and threatening to cut off their heads with a knife. DCF investigated but took no action, the suit alleges.
Nancy Helmig said the complaints came from a spiteful tenant who was not paying rent.
“They were making allegations up,” she said. “Anybody can call DCF. I can call DCF.”
On March 27, 2008, the state granted Nancy long-term guardianship of Lisa and then closed the case.
The YMCA’s new leader, Kurt Stringfellow, who took over last year, declined to comment on the latest litigation.
Problems with the Sarasota YMCA have been documented in recent years: a Manatee County toddler who died in the hands of her drug-addicted mother, and a Pinellas County 2-year-old who disappeared for months.
Under criticism for its management and handling of cases, the YMCA gave up a $49 million foster care contracts in Pinellas and Pasco counties in 2007.
DCF spokeswoman Alexis Lambert would not comment. A message left for the Sarasota County’s Family Preservation Services offices was not returned. That agency contracts with the YMCA to provide case management for the foster care system.
Lisa broke her silence on April 23, 2010, when she told a friend and a teacher that she had been sexually molested for years, according to court records.
“She did not tell any adult outside the Helmig family, because she was afraid and ashamed,” the lawsuit said.
Again, the Sheriff’s Office investigated.
This time, Mark Helmig was arrested and charged with a sex crime.
But the State Attorney’s Office believed the case was weakening. During a deposition, Lisa changed her descriptions of what happened, as did other witnesses who had reported being abused.
“There were significant risks with going forward on this trial,” said Art Jackman, who leads the felony division of the State Attorney’s Office in Sarasota County.
“When you have a case without an eyewitness, it comes down to one-on-one.”
On Nov. 1, Mark Helmig took a plea deal, pleading guilty to one count of sexual battery, but did not receive any jail time.
He was sentenced to five years of probation and placed on the state’s sexual offender registry, even though his prison sentence could have been 108 months — or nine years — according to a criminal punishment code scoresheet in his court case.
“We wanted to protect the community,” Jackman said, referring to Helmig’s designation as a registered sexual predator.
“If we lose, there’s no designation. He walks out.”
Henry Lee, Helmig’s attorney, said his client agreed to the plea deal because he was concerned about the uncertainties of going to trial.
“He was reluctant to take any deal,” Lee said. “Mark has denied the allegation all along. He’s never admitted to it.”
Now, Helmig lives with a friend while his wife takes care of the couple’s three children and grandson.
“They don’t understand. They can can talk to Dad on the phone, but they can’t see Dad,” Nancy Helmig said.
“How do you comprehend this to them?”
Upset that her accused abuser was only sentenced to probation, Lisa turned to civil court.
“She wasn’t happy with the outcome of the criminal case,” said her Sarasota attorney, Richard Filson.
“She wants to obtain justice in another way.”
Filson said Lisa was trying to get counseling, although it was difficult because she now lives out of state in a rural area.
He declined to say where, citing her privacy.
“I can say she’s struggling,” Filson said. “She’s doing the best she can.”