CCSO investigates after developmentally disabled woman reportedly attacked on Collier County paratransit bus

A developmentally disabled woman was attacked on a Collier County paratransit bus by a fellow passenger who bit her repeatedly, leaving deep gashes in her ears and left arm.

Melanie Pericat and another passenger, also a developmentally disabled woman, were left unsupervised on the bus for an unknown amount of time during the incident.

Pericat, 29, was secured in her seat. She’s nonverbal, her mother said, and she couldn’t call out for help.

“She couldn’t move, she couldn’t defend herself, and there was no one there to help her,” said Karen Alfonso, Pericat’s mother.

The Collier County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the incident. No criminal charges have been filed, but the investigation is still open, said Michelle Batten, a sheriff’s office spokesperson.

According to a June 14 incident report, the women were being transported to a day program at United Cerebral Palsy of Southwest Florida in East Naples. Both women live in the same group home in Collier County, according to Alfonso.

The biting started while the women and driver were on their way to the facility, according to the report. The bus driver told the person who started the biting to stop. It is not clear who started the biting because part of the report is redacted.

Melanie Pericat

The driver arrived at United Cerebral Palsy around 8:30 a.m., and the facility opened at 9 a.m. Usually the women sit inside the bus together until the facility opens, the report states. The driver stepped off the bus some time after arriving and told deputies he didn’t witness the attack. The report states it wasn’t clear whether more passengers were on the bus when Pericat was injured.

An employee of the cerebral palsy center called 911 to report Pericat’s injuries. She told a dispatcher that the other passenger bit both of Pericat’s ears and that “one of them is missing a part.”

Pericat and the other passenger were transported to NCH Baker Hospital Downtown for treatment of injuries and blood exposure.

Alfonso said her daughter spent several hours in the emergency room June 14. A plastic surgeon sutured one of Pericat’s ears, which was cut through the middle. The ear that had a part bitten off could not be fixed.

Alfonso said her daughter’s wounds are healing, but she worries about her mental state. Pericat spent the weekend after the attack at her mom’s house. Pericat is back in her group home, but her routine is interrupted because she hasn’t returned to the day program since the attack.

“It breaks my heart because she can’t verbalize her fear, and you can’t tell me she’s not gonna remember and not be afraid when she steps on that bus that she’ll be hurt again,” Alfonso said.

She also has some concerns about her daughter sharing a home with the person who hurt her.

Melanie Etters, a spokesperson for the Agency for Persons with Disabilities, said she could not comment on cases related to people who receive services from the agency. The organization, which provides services to people with disabilities and their families, licenses and inspects group homes, including the one in which Pericat is living.

However, Etters said that if there’s an incident between people living in a group home, additional supervision and security measures will be provided.

“Obviously every situation is unique, but we certainly work with families and try to figure out what is the best option for everybody,” Etters said.

That might mean providing someone to watch residents who exhibit “severe behavior,” or relocating them.

Alfonso said she is focusing on accountability for her daughter’s injuries. She questions why the driver left the passengers unsupervised long enough for her daughter to be hurt and hopes some change will come out of what happened.

"I can't believe that she'll have gone through this horror without there being a result of changes being made," Alfonso said. "...Whether putting staff on the buses with people with disabilities and people who are vulnerable, or training."

Alfonso met with a lawyer this week to discuss whether any legal action can be taken.

Margie Hapke, a spokesperson for the county, said the driver was placed on "administrative hold" until an investigation was completed. The driver was found to not have violated any policies.

A chapter of the Florida Administrative Code that addresses operational safety standards for bus transit systems states that buses shouldn't be left unattended with passengers on board for longer than 15 minutes. The code also states buses can't be left unattended in "an unsafe condition" with passengers on board at any time.

It is not known how long the driver was away from the bus nor how long he was on administrative hold before returning to work.

An onboard camera captured what happened. The county said the video is confidential and exempt from disclosure or inspection under Florida's public records law.

Hapke said the county would not provide further comment on the incident because of the sheriff's office investigation.

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