Niceville woman charged with sexually abusing children was allowed to keep foster care license

Tom McLaughlin
Northwest Florida Daily News

SHALIMAR — Katrina Puri, a Niceville resident arrested Tuesday and charged with sexually abusing children in her care, appears to have dedicated much time and effort over the years to activities that allowed her to be around youngsters.

But along with her recent arrest for sexual abuse, Puri is battling allegations that she previously used "inappropriate restraint and discipline" on a child in her household. 

There are no Okaloosa County court or police records that indicate Puri had gotten into previous criminal trouble for mistreating children.

April 2018 story:Katrina Puri new ECCAC board member

Recent story:Niceville woman with CIC and ECCAC connection accused of sexually abusing girl

"I don't see evidence of any other allegations involving our agency and this individual as of this date," Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Michele Nicholson said Wednesday.

But after the Emerald Coast Children's Advocacy Center, to which Puri was briefly attached as a board member, put out a statement on Facebook on Tuesday outlining its association with her, a commenter posted an authentic looking letter from the state Department of Children and Families that purported to revoke the foster care license of Puri and her husband.

"This letter is to notify you that the Department of Children and Families has reviewed your licensing file and has made a determination to revoke/not renew your foster home license," the copied and pasted Facebook version of the letter, dated April 7, 2019, said.

Katrina Puri

The letter cites "inappropriate restraint and discipline of a child" as one of the reasons DCF was recommending revocation. 

Sheriff's deputies served two warrants on Puri, 50, on Tuesday. She has been charged with lewd and lascivious molestation of a victim less than 12 years old and lewd and lascivious exhibition on a victim less than 16.

She is accused of abusing a then 5-year-old girl during a seven-month period in 2018,  her arrest report said.

A caregiver had reported noticing redness on the child during bath time as well as observing the child exhibiting sexual behaviors. The victim told the caregiver, and subsequently investigators, that Puri touched her inappropriately on a number of occasions, sometimes when she was clothed and sometimes when she was not, the release said.

The arrest report stated the child told authorities that Puri "holds me really hard where I can't go nowhere" as the sexual abuse was being inflicted and described how Puri was touching her as "inside, really hard." 

The victim told authorities Puri had instructed her to differentiate between a "good touch" and "bad touch." 

The letter that appeared briefly on the ECCAC Facebook page was taken down Wednesday morning after the author and Audie Rowell, the president of the CAC board, were contacted about it by the Northwest Florida Daily News.

An identical letter was found on the Division of Administrative Hearings website. The same website provided documentation that showed on Wednesday, a DOAH panel had issued a ruling denying DCF's effort to revoke/not retain the Puris' foster home license.

"Petitioner did not establish that respondents' foster home license should not be renewed," the ruling said.

The DCF investigation that led to the recommendation of revocation, and this week's subsequent overturning of that revocation, was conducted in 2019.

It substantiated findings of substance misuse and threatened harm to foster children within the Puri household, the letter said.

While it did not substantiate findings of physical harm, the letter stated that DCF had confirmed "inappropriate restraint and discipline of a child" along with cursing and threatened harm, use of over-the-counter medications to calm a child and make her sleep and withholding of food as a form of discipline.

"In September of 2018 it was reported to the Department that you were restraining a child in your care using a 'full nelson' restraint because of the child's actions," the letter said. "You were told that you could not restrain the foster child and the extreme dangers involved in doing so.

"After being advised not to restrain the child by a child protective investigator and the FFN (Families First Network) unit manager, you continued to say that you were going to use the restraint and restrained the child again," the letter said.

The entire contents of the Facebook post, including notification that it had been sent by certified mail, were copied and pasted in an email to DCF spokesman David Fierro. Fierro said that contents of such a letter would be considered confidential and would not be posted on a public website. 

Asked by the Daily News to validate the letter's contents, he confirmed that a meeting had been convened at 2 p.m. Eastern Time to discuss the posted material. DCF had not confirmed the content of the letter as accurate by press time Wednesday, but Fierro directed a reporter to the DOAH website where an identical letter was located. 

The website also posted notification of the overturning of the DCF revocation effort. 

The letter stated that the Puri home on Sunset Beach Circle in Niceville originally had been licensed as a foster home through Families First Network on Feb. 20, 2013. The license that was being reviewed for renewal in 2019 had expired on Feb. 20 of that year.

"During the last licensure year multiple concerns have been documented and a child removed from your home," the letter said.

Questions posed to the Family First Network were incorporated into DCF's response to the Daily News, according to FFN spokeswoman Tish Pennywell. 

Puri's involvement with children included hosting holiday events for those in the foster care system. She served as a weekly volunteer for Children In Crisis from 2011 to 2015 and was recognized by CIC as an exceptional volunteer. 

Puri also served as a guardian ad litem during part of that time.

In 2018 she joined the Emerald Coast Children’s Advocacy Center’s board of directors.

"Ms. Puri served on ECCAC’s Board for about five months several years ago," the ECCAC, statement, signed by Rowell and agency CEO Julie Porterfield said. "ECCAC has not been affiliated with Ms. Puri in any way since that time, and we hope there will be a favorable outcome that is in the child’s best interests."

Rowell declined comment beyond the scope of the statement and Porterfield did not return phone calls or emails sent to her Wednesday afternoon.

Volunteer board members can serve up to two three-year terms, according to ECCAC's website. The question of why Puri, who upon her appointment spoke of "a passion for fostering and mentoring kids who are in abusive situations" had left after five months was left unanswered.

Christine Bosau, an assistant state attorney assigned to ECCAC, will prosecute the Puri case. Bosau said she had just received the case file Wednesday and was uncertain if it contained previous allegations against her.