Robert Blanchard talks about allegations against a Bridges caregiver who police say impregnated his daughter, who has developmental disabilities
Eric Rogers, Florida Today
SEBASTIAN, Fla. — Robert Blanchard said his family first became aware of a problem four years ago, when his daughter would call from a Bridges group home in tears.
She said someone was hurting her, Blanchard said. He and his family, of Sebastian, held a new conference Monday afternoon in a second-floor room at Capt Hiram’s Resort.
“My feelings inside me are pain,” said, pausing to collect himself. “A lot of hurt.”
Police arrested Willie Shorter, 58, of Rockledge, Feb. 6 and charged him with the 2015 lewd and lascivious battery of Blanchard’s daughter Dawn, now 43, for whom he was a caregiver. Dawn Blanchard has developmental disabilities.
She became pregnant in early 2015 and gave birth to a son in May of that year. Police said recent DNA testing revealed Shorter was the child’s father.
“I expected my daughter to be taken care of, most of all by professionals,” Blanchard said. “My daughter got assaulted by a(n) … individual who felt he could take a young lady … and use her like a piece of meat. I’m extremely angry …”
Dawn Blanchard still lives in a group home run by Bridges, a Rockledge-based nonprofit in Brevard County that provides services for people with intellectual, developmental and physical disabilities.
The family could not afford to move her to a different facility in the years after the birth, her father said.
At the time of his arrest last week, Shorter had been employed at Bridges for about eight years. He had remained on staff despite suspicions of his involvement in the pregnancy as far back as January 2015, police and Bridges officials said.
‘Troubling and disturbing’
“It’s very troubling and disturbing for us,” said family attorney Kevin C. Smith, of the West Palm Beach firm of Lytal, Reiter, Smith, Ivey & Fronrath. “We’re interested in safety for Dawn and making sure we obtain some measure of justice for this family.”
The child was adopted by Dawn Blanchard’s brother and is being raised by his grandparents, Robert Blanchard said. He’s a normal, happy boy who loves coloring and playing with blocks.
“He hugs on me like an octopus holds on to fresh food, because he knows his Pop-Pop,” he said, giving the boy a warm smile.
Smith said beyond the allegations against Shorter, Dawn Blanchard also reported being injured at the facility.
“On a couple of occasions, she had a black eye and had suffered physical injuries in addition to the assault she claimed,” he said.
Attorney Kevin C. Smith speaks out about Dawn Blanchard, who has developmental disabilities, and sex allegations against her former Bridges caregiver
Eric Rogers, Florida Today
Bridges president and CEO David Cooke said Monday afternoon the nonprofit maintains strict incident reports and would work through specific allegations with the Blanchards’ legal counsel.
“We’ll absolutely … look back through our reports once we have more details,” he said.
Smith said the family intends to assist law enforcement officers in the case.
“I want to thank Rockledge Police Department and especially that detective for their excellent job in finally catching this guy, because so many of them are still out there,” Robert Blanchard said.
The initial investigation
Reports show the investigation began in early 2015 after staff discovered Dawn Blanchard was pregnant.
Her disability was an early complication, leaving her unable to tell the difference between right or wrong, or between a lie and the truth, police said. She has the mental function of a 10-year-old, the result of a brain injury at a young age that developed as a complication of measles, Smith said.
Dawn Blanchard gave police the names of three individuals, two of whom police said were eliminated early in the investigation. The third, Shorter, denied the allegations under questioning.
Police said there was not enough evidence at the time to compel him to submit a DNA sample. Without sufficient evidence to file charges, the investigation stalled.
Cooke said the question of Shorter’s employment was raised after the initial investigation.
After consulting with the Agency for Persons with Disabilities, Cooke said, it was decided that Shorter would be kept on staff because he had not been charged with a crime.
“We decided he could return to work because he was not charged with anything, but we decided he should not work at the same home,” Cooke said.
Thirteen people lived in the home where Shorter was caring for the woman, he said. After returning to work, Shorter was moved to a different property housing 15 people.
In April 2018, Dawn Blanchard made a claim that Shorter had touched her genitals, police said in a report.
Shorter again denied the allegations. This time investigators asked Shorter to voluntarily submit a DNA sample, which he did.
An employee at a Rockledge facility for people with disabilities was arrested Wednesday after police said he fathered a child with one of the clients.
The lead investigator received the test results Feb. 6. Police said the test gave a 99.99 percent chance Shorter was the child’s father.
Shorter was arrested the same afternoon at the Bridges group home where he worked. Bridges terminated his employment following the arrest.
Cooke said he was positive the nonprofit did everything it could to keep Dawn Blanchard safe.
“We followed our procedures and immediately contacted authorities, and followed through on all investigations, with regard to the Rockledge Police Department, the (Florida) Department of Children and Families and the Agency for Persons with Disabilities,” he said.
“We’ve been in Brevard for 62 years serving people with disabilities. We are absolutely devastated,” Cooke said. “This is devastating for the client, for the family. It’s devastating for the staff who work so hard everyday, working for our clients with significant disabilities.”
Rockledge Deputy Police Chief Donna Seyferth said the disability of the client, difficulties relating to the pregnancy, the involvement of a child and the slow pace of DNA testing all posed challenges that slowed progress.
“Unfortunately, forensic science doesn’t always move as quick as we like,” Seyferth said. “We’re glad to be able to have some closure in the case.”
Seyferth said Bridges, the nonprofit’s officers and staff, and the woman’s family were fully cooperative throughout the investigation.
Smith said the Blanchard family is focusing on Dawn’s care and recovery.
“Our firm will conduct a full investigation of this incident to determine what measures will be taken against Bridges and the long-term care of (Dawn).”
Follow Eric Rogers on Twitter: @EricRogersFT
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