A Tampa charity that runs a home for abused and neglected children has had a rough year.
The former treasurer of Hope International Ministries Inc. is awaiting federal sentencing on a charge of siphoning $187,284 from the charity for his personal use. Throughout the ordeal, Hope's executive director, D. Michael Higgins, has maintained that the $6-million-in-assets charity has stayed true to its mission of "rescuing the next generation" of abandoned children.
But a young man named James, who spent 10 years at Hope Children's Home after his family turned him over to Higgins, tells the ABC Action News I-Team that he needed to be rescued from Hope.
Ed Rebovich went to court against Higgins and won the right to be legal guardian for James, who has an intellectual disability.
"I got hollered at and threatened," Rebovich told the I-Team. "But I took him out."
Rebovich, who drove a truck for Hope's thrift stores, was fired the same day.
Hope Children's Home took in James, now 30, when he was 16 after his adoptive mother gave him up. Around his 18th birthday, James was moved from a boy’s dormitory into a small apartment on Hope's 55-acre campus near Citrus Park. There, he was put to work.
"Work, work, work, work, work," James recalled. "That's it."
Higgins says James was one of many children who loved to work in Hope's stables and be around the horses.
But the typical work day for James also included loading and unloading perishables donated by Publix Supermarkets Inc. and other local businesses, as well as riding with Rebovich to collect furniture for the thrift stores.
"I looked at it as a form of occupational therapy," said Higgins, downplaying what Rebovich described as long hours of often heavy lifting.
"It was very hard, strenuous work," Rebovich said.
"It's just our day-to-day operations here at Hope," Higgins insisted to the I-Team. "We're a big family."
Hope International Ministries is indeed a family affair. Higgins employs five family members at Hope --- his wife, two sons and their wives.
All six Higgins family members have been paid for their labor, but James was not.
In fact, Hope retained the young man's nearly $700 in monthly government benefits, according to a report filed in court by Rebovich.
Rebovich met James in 2010. By then, James was 24.
After watching James lug heavy furniture and other donations for hours, Rebovich says he would be dismayed when he dropped off his helper at the end of the day. "I'd go to his house every day," Rebovich said. "I checked the refrigerator and the cabinets and there was never any food."
Higgins denied that. "Anything he would have needed he would have had access to," Higgins told the I-Team.
Rebovich says James had a food stamp card, but the Higgins family controlled it.
"We just took his card and said, 'James, anytime you want it, anytime you need it, we'll run you,'" Higgins said. "He had to have somebody take him to the store."
Nevertheless, James told Rebovich that he wanted to leave Hope. When the truck driver relayed that message to Hope executives, he says Higgins and one of his sons told Rebovich that James couldn't leave. Higgins was guardian for James, Rebovich says he was told by the two Higgins family members.
"You can't do nothing," James recalled of his plight at that time. "Nobody's going to listen to you over somebody like the Higgins."
But Rebovich listened --- and acted. He called the Florida Department of Children and Families, which informed Rebovich that James could leave at any time. So Rebovich took James to stay at his home.
It wasn't until after James and Rebovich left Hope that Higgins asked a Hillsborough County judge to become legal guardian for James.
James told the court that he didn't wish to return to Hope. "They were very mean to me there," James said.
If he was forced to go back, James told the court, he would kill himself.
James was examined by a psychiatrist, a psychologist and a licensed social worker who were appointed by the court.
The psychiatrist said James was moderately incapacitated and “may be a victim of a designing person.”
But the psychologist’s report says James said he “had food withheld and personal property confiscated. He stated he was accepting of having a guardian as long as it was not someone connected to Hope Children’s Home.”
The licensed social worker said: “He described limitations in his access to food, labor without pay, being forced to attend religious services that were not of his particular faith, lots of yelling at him.”
The judge also considered a report from a dentist who examined James after departing Hope and estimated the young man needed $15,000 worth of dental work.
Higgins said Hope made sure James had regular dental visits.
“It could have been in a position to where the Medicaid doctor just didn't identify the needs there and another doctor did,” Higgins said of the dentist's large estimate.
In any case, the judge had heard enough. Rebovich was awarded guardianship of James, who still lives with him today.
"I won quite easily," Rebovich said. "You have to remember, I was in my 60s, unemployed, had really not too much money. And I won over a CEO."
Higgins claims Rebovich was in it for the money.
"The day that Ed left here with James," Higgins said, "they left immediately to the Social Security office." Rebovich reassigned James' government benefits from the Higgins family to himself.
If Rebovich was in it for the money, he paid a steep price to become James' guardian. The former Hope driver says he gave up his house and automobile to cover the legal bills to battle Higgins in court.
Yet Rebovich says it was all worth it.
After the I-Team interviewed Higgins for this story, other former Hope residents as well as benefactors of the charity contacted ABC Action News to vouch for Higgins and the charity’s work.
“While I was at the children's home they provided everything I needed from food, clothing, shelter, schooling, and some severely needed medical attention. They helped me with school which I really struggled with when I got to them. I stayed at the children's home until I graduated, at the age of 18, and went off to college,” said Mallek Alqaryouti, who now serves in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Former Hope employee Becky Gripton made the following observation about James when she observed him at the home: “He helped around the home, and James always felt like he had a purpose and expressed his joy at being able to go out and help at donation pick-ups or help sort through donations at the donation area. James always seemed to enjoy contributing to the home. He said to me more than once ‘My work is important, Miss Becky. Mr. Matt said I help the home run when I pick up the food donations.’”
James says he is much happier in his new home with Rebovich, but he has a message for the Higgins family.
"It's wrong to treat anybody like that," said James, sitting in the living room of Rebovich's apartment. "'Doesn't matter who it is. You don't treat nobody like that."
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