Ignoring boy's plight costs state $1.5 million: Government | adn.com



CHILDREN'S SERVICES: 37 reports outlined danger youth was in.


Published: December 2nd, 2008 11:42 PM
Last Modified: December 2nd, 2008 11:21 AM

The baby boy was born with cocaine in his system. His mother abandoned him when he was an infant. At age 3, he lay down in the street and said he wished a truck would run over him.

And the system that was supposed to protect him was every bit as dysfunctional.

He bounced from one Anchorage foster home to another and then back to his father, who beat and neglected him, according to a lawsuit filed on his behalf against the state Office of Children's Services.

The complaint accused OCS of failing to protect the child from repeated abuse and neglect, despite dozens of reports to state workers that he was in danger. The result: an emotionally damaged boy.

Late in November, the state settled the lawsuit for $1.5 million. The boy is now 18, attending a special school, and living with his adoptive parents.

Alaska's system to protect children let the boy down and is broken, said Christine Schleuss, one of his attorneys.

Neighbors, teachers, foster parents, a nurse and others all made reports to the state that the boy was in danger, 37 reports in all, most of them naming his father as a source of abuse and neglect. But an expert hired by the boy's lawyers determined that not a single report was handled properly, according to the state's own minimal standards, Schleuss said. Some weren't investigated at all.

"There was systemic indifference ... just complete indifference and lack of accountability: Oh, don't blame us for this. Even though our own rules and regulations require us to do these things, don't hold us accountable when we don't do them," Schleuss said Tuesday.

"They are not building a record of what is happening in this child's life," said co-counsel Cynthia Strout. He had unexplained bruises. There were reports of no food in the house, of drug abuse by adults, of the boy and his brothers running around unsupervised.

The boy and his adoptive parents didn't want to talk about what happened for this story but gave the lawyers permission to do so, they said. The lawsuit doesn't identify the family.

The adoptive parents never sought any money for themselves but sued to ensure the boy's needs are met, Schleuss said. He may require counseling, a job coach, assisted living and other help.

"He is a wonderful, lovely human being. He is a delightful young man. But life is going to be tough for him," Schleuss said.

The money will be managed by a court-appointed conservator, his lawyers say.

The case settled just before it was to go to trial. Schleuss wouldn't say how much of the $1.5 million will go for attorney fees. But costs for experts, travel and other expenses amounted to $170,000 as she and Strout prepared for trial, the lawyers said.

It's the second big lawsuit against OCS that Schleuss has settled this year. The other one, on behalf of two boys, settled midway through the trial, with each boy getting $1.2 million.

In the recent case, state officials didn't admit any wrongdoing but said the boy's side was seeking over $3 million in damages at what was expected to be a three-week trial.

State officials provided a written statement on the settlement through the Department of Law. One of the issues was whether the state failed to permanently sever the father's rights to the boy soon enough, the statement said.

The boy's case dates back to 1990. The state took custody of the boy at birth and had to try to reunify him with his family, the statement said. There were years of court proceedings.

Those efforts happened before a 1998 change in state law that requires abusive or neglectful parents to prove their ability to safely care for their children more quickly, the statement said.

The boy is the youngest of three and seemed to get the brunt of his father's anger, his lawyers say. As a preschooler, his emotional troubles led to repeated stays in an Anchorage psychiatric hospital, the suit said. The hospital described him as feral. After one of the stays, the staff urged that he not be returned to his father.

"And they just ignored that," Strout said.

By the time he was 6, he was in a foster home and life was more stable. But the state still required unsupervised visits with his father, and he would return to the foster home with bruises and once, with stitches. There were also suspicions another child in his father's home was sexually abusing him, the lawsuit said.

When he was 7, the foster parents agreed to become his legal guardians. Then the boy's father showed up and demanded the child back. The boy's caseworker had failed to file the court papers for the state to keep custody. The boy went back to his father.

Right away, the state learned that the father refused to give the boy medicine he needed to combat seizures. The foster parents visited and found "animal-like conditions" that they reported to the state. No one investigated.

In fact, his social worker never visited over the five months the boy was back with his father, Schleuss said.

In February 1999, the foster mother saw the boy at a Boys and Girls Club in Anchorage. He pulled up his shirt and showed welts from beatings with a dog leash. His father wasn't there. The foster mother took him straight to state authorities.

Police were called, and the father was charged with assault, the lawyers said.

The boy ended up back with the foster parents. They adopted him when he was 11. Even then he wasn't safe. The state put an older foster boy in the home who had a history of violence, without telling the foster parents about his past.

The 14-year-old had killed a cat, set fires, and molested other children. But the foster parents didn't know any of that, Schleuss said.

He molested the younger boy, the lawyer said, who had already been through so much.

The Alaska Supreme Court earlier had ruled in a separate case that the state had to inform foster parents about risky behavior of children being placed in their homes. The state even created a form. But the critical page in this case was missing, Schleuss said.

The boy's lawyers said the state can do better. They have some ideas: lower caseloads. Better pay, so workers stay on the job. Better supervision of front-line workers, an emphasis of Tammy Sandoval, the OCS director since 2005.

"What is disturbing to me is we are a fairly small state. We have the resources to do it. We can do it," Schleuss said.

But until the system improves, Schleuss and Strout say they intend to keep after OCS, one child at a time. Their next lawsuit is set for trial in April.

Find Lisa Demer online at adn.com/contact/ldemer or call 257-4390.

Ignoring boy's plight costs state $1.5 million: Government | adn.com