Time has a tendency to move on for those not directly involved in an unfortunate situation, but for those who were the subject of that situation, the ramifications can continue for a long time.
Such is the case for Steve and JoAnna Erickson, pastors at the Church Without Limits, which owned the former No Limits Learning Academy that was illegally and inappropriately shut down in August 2017 by a Manatee County Sheriff’s Office Child Protective Services deputy, according to an ongoing lawsuit.
Investigations into accusations of child neglect and abuse led to no criminal charges being filed and the case was closed.
The damage, however, was done. Worse, it hasn’t stopped, with the Ericksons recently losing their church as well.
Though allowed to reopen the school in a matter of days, the academy went from 300 students to seven and never recovered. The school has since closed and changed hands, and now the Ericksons, both pastors, have lost their place of worship at 2209 75th St. W.
Just as parents abandoned the school after the shutdown, church attendance plummeted in the wake of the unfounded accusations and never recovered.
The lawsuit against MCSO and CPS was filed last summer, but it was amended Dec. 21 to name Sheriff Rick Wells and CPS Capt. Dennis Romano as defendants. The amended suit also outlines the damages, which the Ericksons’ attorney James Patterson said could be upwards of $5 million in lost revenue, associated legal costs and the destruction of reputation stemming from that August day in 2017.
That shutdown, which was done by a single CPS officer with the wrong documents and no authority to do so by Department of Children and Family Services standards, led to intense media coverage.
The school went from almost 300 students to none and when it reopened after investigations revealed no wrongdoing, only seven returned. The Ericksons were operating the daycare under the umbrella of their nearby Church Without Limits.
“It’s a real tragedy that (CPS deputy Lisa Montera) and the sheriff’s department not only wrongfully got a school closed, but killed a church in the process, as well,” Patterson said. “That church ran one of the largest food banks in the area.”
The impact has been devastating, but the Ericksons have always taught their congregation that when God prepares to move you in a new direction, the change can sometimes be painful and faith testing.
“I guess what I would say is no matter how horrible this all is, God will still turn things around for our good and His glory,” JoAnna Erickson said. “He is ever faithful and His word is true. I have learned so much through all of this. I learned that where God is taking us, we have to find a way to have tougher skin to handle it. We have to get better and not bitter.”
Erickson acknowledges, even as a person who has a close relationship with God, that it hasn’t been easy. She said she’s been ostracized in public by people she’s known for years when the stories about the daycare being shut down over child neglect issues came out. She was the primary one being targeted in the investigation, though she was not on campus at the time of the incident, nor an employee.
“I love people with every fiber of my being, but the enemy can use them like a tool to accomplish his goal to steal, kill and destroy all that is Godly,” she said. “But he can only win an occasional battle, not the war. We will keep on worshipping and praising and trusting God to show us what he has for us next.”
Next is searching for a new building where the Church Without Limits can begin anew and, in the meantime, continue to serve the congregation’s spiritual needs wherever possible. The Ericksons have been shaken through this process, but not defeated, she said.
Also, JoAnna Erickson acknowledges that she could not understand why God would let an injustice stand.
“It’s all gone,” she said. “We are looking at our entire life’s work in a pile of rubble, but this is where the rubber hits the road. We had to make a choice: Will we be victims or will we say, ‘OK, God, you allowed us to go through this. Now what do you have for us next?’
“One night I was literally laying on my face before God and I said, ‘God, how did the devil win? I got to fight harder because you can’t look bad.’
“And clear as day, He spoke to me like thunder and said, ‘I don’t need you to defend me.’ And just like that, I felt released from the fight. We are closing this chapter in the book and moving on to the great things God has for us next. God is not finished with us yet and our lives are His. We are still praising and still standing and still trusting God.”
The incident that led to the closure of the school involved a 10-year-old daring a mentally challenged 6-year-old to ask a 4-year-old girl to drop her pants. The girl did so and just as the 6-year-old was about do the same, teachers saw what was happening and intervened.
The 10-year-old is the child of the daycare’s former director, Katie Salyer, who the lawsuit alleges grabbed her son after the incident, saying, “Stay away from the younger children and keep your mouth shut.”
Teachers at the academy say Salyer’s son created a lot of issues with the other children. Salyer never documented the incident on the playground as she was required to do by law, and then falsified attendance records to make it appear her son was not there that day, according to the lawsuit.
Salyer then filed a complaint with CPS, accusing JoAnna Erickson of child neglect over the incident between the two younger children, though Erickson was never on campus. Immediately after Salyer filed the complaint, she resigned and left the state.
That complaint led to the shutdown by Montera, who did not have the authority or the appropriate documents and violated Department of Children and Family Services standards that are required for a shutdown, according to the lawsuit, which goes into great detail of those events.
Patterson said the lawsuit outlines about $1.1 million in lost revenue. But when all told, the total damage in personal relief and all associated costs is about $5 million, he said.
Even if they win, they don’t win
Even if the lawsuit is successful, Florida law limits the dollars that can be awarded when suing a law enforcement agency. Sovereign immunity limits the types of cases that can be brought forward, but one that can be is negligence.
However, the state caps damages at $200,000.
Patterson said, if successful, the Legislature has a process to determine whether the balance of a lawsuit against a law enforcement agency should be paid.
The likelihood of that happening is daunting at best, but the Ericksons said the lawsuit was never about the money. It was about acknowledging that a wrong had been done.
The lawsuit alleges wrongful closure, defamation, negligence and defamation Per Se, which is when the defendant makes false statements about the plaintiffs, as is alleged in Montera’s comments to parents about JoAnna Erickson’s possible criminal actions when there were none.
Patterson said no court date has been set because the amended lawsuit was recently filed. MCSO spokesman Randy Warren said the department has not officially been served with the amended documents and that MCSO would have no comment on the case, which is being defended by outside counsel assigned through the Florida Sheriff’s Risk Management Fund.
For the Ericksons, it’s still about right and wrong. They’ll probably never see enough money to rebuild what they lost, but again, it’s not about dollars.
“His ways are higher than our ways and He knows the plans that he has for us,” JoAnna Erickson said. “They are good plans to give us hope and a bright future.”