DSHS settles foster-care case for $2 million

The Seattle Times

The state Department of Social and Health Services will pay $2 million to settle a lawsuit brought by two women who claimed they suffered years of physical and sexual abuse as children in a foster home while DSHS looked the other way.

The women, identified in court papers as A.K. and K.M., claimed they were abused beginning in the late 1980s at ages 5 and 6 after being placed in a Pierce County foster home.

In their lawsuit, filed in Pierce County Superior Court, A.K. claimed her foster father began raping her at age 6. When she was 8, she claimed, he ordered her to start showering with him and to walk around the house wearing only his wife’s underwear. The lawsuit also alleged the couple subjected foster children to beatings and sadistic punishments, such as forcing the children to eat feces and vomit.

Thursday’s settlement included no admission of wrongdoing by DSHS. Agency spokesman Steve Williams said the women’s abuse claims were never proven. But, he added: “DSHS hopes the plaintiffs can use the settlement in ways that will help them live fulfilling and productive lives.”

An attorney for the foster parents — who were never criminally charged — rejected the abuse claims in the lawsuit.

“The couple denied and continue to deny all allegations of physical, sexual and emotional abuse claimed by the plaintiffs,” said the attorney, Sok-Khieng Lim, in an e-mailed statement. She added that the couple provided foster care for more than 20 years in Washington and Arizona — frequently taking on some of the most difficult children in the system — and they were “devastated” by the allegations.

The couple, who now live in England, were dismissed from the lawsuit after a $10,000 settlement earlier this year. The Seattle Times does not generally name individuals who have not been charged with a crime.

The attorneys for the women, now in their early 20s, said they’d discovered evidence in DSHS files that the agency had received multiple warnings of possible abuse over years, yet failed to act.

For example, one of A.K.’s teachers reported that the girl had seemed fearful of her foster dad and had complained that “her private parts hurt” — classic signs of possible abuse. No investigation occurred.

An elementary-school counselor reported hearing that A.K. was forced by her foster mother to eat loaves of frozen bread for several days in a row as a punishment for overeating at school.

A DSHS supervisor dismissed that as “a bizarre form of punishment” that did not rise to the level of neglect, according to court documents.

Another school counselor reported hearing that foster children in the home were sometimes forced to hit each other. If they didn’t, the mother “will hit us in the mouth and knock our teeth out,” one of the children said in a therapy session, according to court documents.

Despite such reports, DSHS did not launch an investigation and allowed the couple to move with the girls to Arizona in 1993.

Lincoln Beauregard, an attorney representing the women, said his clients hoped the settlement would lead other abused foster children to step forward.

“The most important thing to my clients is that the public knows what happened … and that DSHS failed to do their job and continues to fail to do their job,” he said.

Beauregard also said he was furious with what he considers a “perjured” declaration — filed by the state in a failed attempt to have the lawsuit dismissed — by the longtime DSHS caseworker for the children.

That caseworker, now retired, said in the sworn declaration that “at no point was there ever a suggestion of physical or sexual abuse,” despite having been questioned that day in a deposition about reports of possible abuse in DSHS’s own files.

The $2 million settlement is the latest of many to hit DSHS’s supervision of foster homes in recent years.

In 2007, four siblings won a $6.2 million verdict after a jury found the state negligent for licensing an abusive Seattle foster mother. Last year, eight boys got an $11 million settlement from Seattle, Tacoma and DSHS for failing to stop sexual abuse by a foster father who also posted explicit pictures of the abuse on the Internet.