family goes on offense
|By CARY DAVIS
Article Courtesy of the St. Petersburg Times
Published October 23, 2002
TAMPA -- The Forest Lake Estates Civic Association has the right to tell families in the Port Richey neighborhood what their homes should look like on the outside.
But the civic association has no authority, according to a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday, to regulate the makeup of families in the neighborhood.
"At least not in America," attorneys for Steven and Corinna Gourlay said in a letter Tuesday to the civic association.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Tampa, marks a dramatic shift in an escalating battle pitting the civic association's authority to enforce deed restrictions against the Gourlays' right to raise foster children in Forest Lake Estates.
Before Tuesday, the civic association had played the role of accuser. In a letter, and a lawsuit filed two weeks ago in state court, the association alleged that the Gourlays had violated deed restrictions by taking in five foster children. The Gourlays, the association contends, do not meet the definition of a "single family."
On Tuesday, the Gourlays, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, went on the offensive. They alleged in the lawsuit that the civic association's actions amount to a violation of the federal Fair Housing Act.
That law prohibits discriminatory housing practices on the basis of race, religion, sex, national origin and familial status.
"We don't think anybody has the right to define what a family is," said Matthew Moore, a Tampa attorney with the firm of Shook, Hardy & Bacon. The firm is handling the case, at no charge, on behalf of the ACLU of Florida.
Moore said the law is on the side of the Gourlays, who have legal custody of the five foster children. That qualifies the foster children as members of the Gourlay family under the federal Fair Housing Act, Moore said. Moreover, he said, a federal appeals court ruled in 1991 that foster children fall under the definition of "familial status."
The association's lawyer, Donald Peyton, who lives in Forest Lake Estates, did not return a call Tuesday seeking comment. The association's vice president, Walter Lucas, who is named individually in the suit, also did not return a message from a Times reporter.
The Gourlays said Lucas started the movement to oust the foster children. Corinna Gourlay said Lucas once accused her of running a day care business out of her home. The foster children range in age from 3 to 14. The Gourlays also have four children of their own in their 1,700-square-foot home.
The lawsuit seeks an injunction preventing the association from "coercing, intimidating, threatening and/or discriminating against" the Gourlays. It also seeks unspecified punitive damages against the association for "wanton and reckless" actions.
Moore said the lawsuit also serves to make a point: Communities should embrace foster parents, not discourage them.
"What the civic association is doing is insane," he said. "It's a clear case of abuse of power."
Moore is asking the civic association to drop its state lawsuit against the Gourlays. That suit, which asks a judge to rule on whether foster children violate the deed restrictions of Forest Lake Estates, is pending.
Steven and Corinna Gourlay joined their lawyers for an afternoon news conference on the steps of the federal courthouse in downtown Tampa. Facing a bank of television cameras, they vowed to push the fight on behalf of foster parents everywhere.
"Our children are our children," said Corinna Gourlay. "They're not leaving."
But the much-publicized controversy is
taking a toll on the foster children, she said. "They think people around
here hate them."
Flanked by attorneys and backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, foster parents Steven and Corinna Gourlay sued the civic group and its vice president over fair housing laws, the latest volley in an increasingly divisive dispute.
``It's gone farther than we ever thought it would,'' Corinna Gourlay said, clasping her husband's hand outside the U.S. courthouse. ``It has to be resolved one way or another.''
The Gourlays, who care for five foster children and their four biological children, say the Forest Lake Estates Civic Association of Port Richey and official Walter A. Lucas are violating state and federal laws that prohibit discrimination based on family status.
The civic group this month sued the Gourlays in state court, saying they're breaking deed restrictions by accepting payment to provide foster care. The Gourlays, the group argues, operate a business from their home.
That's nonsense, the Gourlays' attorneys said.
``I think anybody in their right mind would have to take the side of the Gourlays,'' said Matthew Moore, one of two Tampa lawyers representing the couple for free on the ACLU's behalf. ``Foster children are no different than any other children.
``The association is trying to define what a family is,'' Moore said. ``What kind of a precedent does this set?''
The Gourlays, both 34, receive about $24,000 per year to cover expenses associated with the foster children, ages 2 to 14. Steven Gourlay, a truck driver, said his children are ``confused ... angry'' about the situation.
Told Not To Answer Questions
Lucas said Donald Peyton, the association's attorney, told him not to answer questions.
Peyton, who also lives in Forest Lake Estates, said he hadn't seen the federal lawsuit. But he suggested the Gourlays' move is premature because a judge hasn't ruled on the group's suit, which seeks clarification on whether the couple is violating deed restrictions.
``If the court said there is no violation, that would take care of it,'' Peyton said.
He said he doesn't know how the dispute is affecting the community: ``I can't say; I haven't taken a poll.''
But Eddie Morelli, who has lived in the neighborhood for three years, said Lucas and Peyton are out of touch with most residents.
``A lot of the neighbors are really disgusted by what's going on here,'' said Morelli, 58. ``The Gourlays aren't devaluing my property.''
According to their lawsuit, the Gourlays bought their home in 1999. Two years later, Lucas told them to install a green tarp over their fence because neighbors didn't want to see their children playing on a backyard swing set.
Lucas threatened to sue if the Gourlays didn't comply, the couple said. They installed a tarp.
The situation worsened in September when the Gourlays asked for permission to widen their driveway, the lawsuit states. Lucas refused and accused the Gourlays of not limiting the use of their home to a single-family residence.
`No Getting Rich In Fostering'
Suzanne Stevens, president of the Florida State Foster Adoptive Parent Association, said caring for foster children isn't akin to running a business.
``We do this 24 hours a day,'' said Stevens, whose nonprofit association trains and supports foster families. ``There's no getting rich in fostering.''
Stevens, 50, of Mount Dora, said she hopes the publicity surrounding the Gourlays ``will open up people's eyes, and people will see the positive effects of fostering.''
But she's worried about the impact on the couple.
Outside the courthouse Tuesday, the Gourlays said they hope they won't have to leave their home.
``There is an awful lot of tension around our neighborhood,'' Corinna Gourlay said. ``I would hope that people would realize foster families are families.''