Parents of Autistic Children Feel Duped by Puppy Trainer
Eng, Monica, The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, WV)
CHICAGO - When they got the news last April, Faith Creighton's parents were thrilled to tell their 7-year-old daughter she was finally getting her own puppy.
And this wasn't just any puppy. Bella the blue-eyed husky would be specially trained to protect Faith and ameliorate some symptoms of her autism. An organization based in downstate Illinois, Animals for Autism, would provide the dog at a fraction of the usual cost, which typically starts at about $15,000.
"When we got pictures of Bella by email, [Faith] saw them and fell instantly in love," said her mom, Allison Creighton. The family, which lives near Seattle, sent in a down payment right away.
About the same time, Animals for Autism founder Lea Kaydus entered the Pepsi Refresh Project grant competition with the stated intention of placing 10 free service dogs with 10 lucky families.
Kaydus urged families in the autism community to vote 10 times a day for the project, to buy Pepsi products bearing codes so they could cast "power votes" and to get friends and families to do the same. "We need the support of the ENTIRE autism community to succeed," Kaydus wrote in emails that parents provided to the Chicago Tribune.
It worked. Families sent in extensive applications - including a video of their child - in hopes of winning a dog, and by June the Animals for Autism project had scored a $50,000 grant from Pepsi. Soon the 10 winning families, including the Creightons, received pictures of puppies that Kaydus said would join their families by spring 2012.
"I cannot possibly describe how excited we are," one Wisconsin family wrote to Kaydus. "It is such a wonderful feeling to bring so much joy and hope to so many amazing families!" Kaydus wrote back.
That was the high point of a relationship that has degenerated so much that many of the families worry their kids may never see the promised dogs.
By August, "the organization had stopped sending us any updates," Creighton wrote on a blog. "No pictures, nor any real training updates. When we would ask, they said they were too busy, but maybe later."
Frustrated by the lack of communication, the families started looking more closely at Animals for Autism (now based in Glenarm, Ill., near Springfield) and began sharing information. Among their discoveries:
The nonprofit tax number Kaydus supplied to families for use at fundraisers is invalid. According to the Illinois Attorney General's Office, Animals for Autism submitted an incomplete application in November and is not a registered nonprofit.
Although Animals for Autism claimed 25 years of experience in training service dogs, parents could find only one family in possession of such a dog. When the Tribune asked to contact that family, Pepsi Refresh's grant manager, Global Giving, said it couldn't share their information.
The Pepsi Refresh voting site stated the grant would go to "train and place free service dogs with autistic kids," but the terms of the grant do not require delivery of the dogs. According to Pepsi and Global Giving, the grant money may be spent on items that go "toward realizing the spirit of the grant," such as building kennels, caring for the dogs and buying training tools.
Siberian Huskies are not ideal service dogs for young children. "They tend to be independent and were bred to pull sleds, not to please people like, for instance, golden retrievers," said Toni Eames, president of the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners, a consumer advocacy group for people with service dogs.
Eams also said that only about 50 percent of the best-bred and - selected dogs graduate from service dog training. "You cannot possibly take 10 puppies and promise them as service dogs to 10 people," she said. "It doesn't work that way."
Seeking explanations for these irregularities, parents say they called and wrote to Kaydus repeatedly in the summer and fall without any solid response. …