The owner of a downstate dog training facility has agreed to refund thousands of dollars to families who were promised autism service dogs for their children but never received them, according to a consent judgment expected to be filed Thursday.
The proposed agreement provides some consolation to four families across the country who nearly a year and a half ago started sending trainer Lea Kaydus their own money and community donations for dogs trained to ameliorate symptoms of children with autism.
"For some of us, this has been the most stressful 18 months of our lives," said Allison Creighton, of the Seattle area, who estimates her family and friends paid Kaydus more than $2,500 toward a dog for her daughter. "I don't feel like we will ever get emotional resolution on what has happened, but at least we know that we will get our money back."
In a statement to the Tribune on Wednesday, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan described Kaydus' offer of help to families as "a heartless scam."
"The organization targeted parents of children with autism who hoped that adopting a service dog would help their child," she said. "But instead of receiving a trained dog to assist their child, these families lost thousands of dollars and, worse, had their hopes for their child dashed."
The proposed consent judgment against Kaydus and her organization, Animals for Autism, would be filed in Sangamon County Circuit Court and alleges violations of the Illinois Consumer Fraud Act and Solicitation for Charity Act.
The consent decree would require Kaydus to pay at least $5,190 to the attorney general's office, which would then distribute that money to consumers involved in the case. Kaydus' attorney, Madigan representatives say, has agreed to the terms. The decree needs judicial approval.
The issue was brought to the attorney general's attention by consumer complaints as well as media reports, including two in the Tribune.
According to families who sought the dogs, Kaydus had advertised herself in early 2011 as a trainer of Siberian huskies who could provide service dogs to autistic children for $3,000 to $8,000, a fraction of the usual price. Several started sending in payments and holding fundraisers in their communities to help cover the costs. Then, in June 2011, Kaydus announced that she'd won a $50,000 grant from Pepsi —with the help of families who voted for her project online — to give 10 families dogs for free.
Those who were chosen as one of the 10 families but had already paid money to the trainer did not get their money back but were promised a dog.
Within months of getting the news of their "win," families say, they stopped hearing from Kaydus; they say she would not return their calls or letters.
The Rev. Dave DeWitt, a pastor in Ohio, said his family and friends handed over thousands of dollars to Kaydus for a dog and hopes court action will protect other families from doing the same.
"I am glad that we are finally getting somewhere," he said. "But it doesn't make up for the time we lost, the stress and emotional roller coaster we have been on. … We don't want any more families to have to go through this."
Families who asked Kaydus to refund their money last year say she refused on the grounds that their dogs were being trained specifically for their children, making them unsuitable for others, and that Pepsi would not allow her to refund the money.
Pepsi representatives previously confirmed that Kaydus could not use any of the $50,000 Pepsi grant to repay the families but was free to use her own money. Attempts to reach Pepsi for comment about the attorney general's actions were not successful.
A representative for Global Giving, which has managed the grant to Kaydus, said the grant is closed and the group could not comment. Earlier this year, Donna Callejon, Global Giving's chief business officer, said Kaydus was still in good standing with the agency. Although delivering the dogs was part of the "spirit of the grant," it was not a specific requirement, she said.
At least three of the 10 families have been contacted by an organization called 4 Paws For Ability, which has offered to train dogs for their children at no cost. .
Creighton said she believes the judgment is "a good first step, but I would like to see her admit what she did. I'd like to see a further explanation of what happened. She took the hopes and dreams of (many) families and just tossed them away."
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