Lawsuit says state failed foster children

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Date: 2007-12-07

Lawsuit says state failed foster children

$95 million sought for Tyler DeLeon estate, seven others

Shawn Vestal
December 7, 2007

A lot of people were in a position to prevent the death of Tyler DeLeon, his advocates say.

The state agency that licensed Carole DeLeon as a foster parent, which failed to respond to numerous complaints about abuse and neglect of foster children in her care and helped her adopt the boy. Social workers. His primary care doctor. His psychiatrist.

All were named as defendants Thursday in a lawsuit filed in Spokane County Superior Court. The suit seeks $95 million in damages from the state and unspecified damages from Dr. David Fregeau, Tyler's primary care doctor, and Sandra Bremner-Dexter, the boy's psychiatrist.

The suit was filed on behalf of Tyler's estate and seven other children who were placed in Carole DeLeon's home. The plaintiffs have already filed claims against the state, a precursor to the lawsuit.

"She never should have had any of these kids placed with her in the first place," said Tim Tesh, an attorney representing the plaintiffs. "She never should have had a foster-care license post-1988."

A spokesman for the Department of Social and Health Services said the agency would not comment on pending litigation, and messages left for Fregeau and Bremner-Dexter were not returned.

Tyler DeLeon died on his seventh birthday, Jan. 13, 2005, of dehydration exacerbated by starvation. The lawsuit alleges that DSHS failed to properly investigate the background of Carole DeLeon and another caregiver in DeLeon's home in Stevens County, or to respond to numerous complaints of abuse. The other children placed in her care suffered similar forms of abuse, the lawsuit alleges.

DeLeon lost her foster-care license in 1988 and had children removed from her care for abuse – but was granted another license eight years later.

Tesh said that some of the other children – one of whom is now an adult – are still struggling with health and behavioral problems.

"Some of them are doing well," he said. "Some of them are having a very hard time."

Tyler's death prompted reviews and investigations, and the findings are part of the foundation for the complaint filed Thursday. The lawsuit cites an extensive history of abuse complaints and health concerns regarding foster children at Carol DeLeon's home, including bruising, broken bones, knocked-out teeth, the routine withholding of food and water, sexual abuse by a registered sex offender, bite marks and multiple scars.

During the time the children named as plaintiffs lived with DeLeon, there were 23 complaints alleging abuse, neglect and licensing violations in the home.

"Many of the CPS referrals and many others not detailed herein were reported to CPS by the school district," the complaint states. "CPS either investigated these referrals and determined them to be unfounded or ignored them in their entirety."

The suit alleges that Fregeau and Bremner-Dexter – both of whom are required by law to report valid suspicions of abuse or neglect – were aware of injuries suffered by Tyler in the home, allegations of abuse and the fact that Tyler's height and weight fell into the bottom fifth percentile for his age during his time in Carole DeLeon's care. The failure to report those problems amounts to malpractice, the suit says.

Fregeau, a pediatrician who's worked in Spokane for more than 15 years, also played a role in DeLeon's criminal case, assuring the medical examiner that there was no abuse in the case, Stevens County Prosecutor Tim Rasmussen told The Spokesman-Review in July. That assessment was a factor in Rasmussen's decision to drop homicide-by-abuse charges against DeLeon and pursue lesser charges.

A CPS investigation of Fregeau's role in the case concluded that he had seen many injuries suffered by Tyler and his foster brother, then known as Steven Miller, but that Carole DeLeon persuaded him and others that there was no abuse.

"Ms. DeLeon was able to mislead well-respected professionals and physicians in her community about the behaviors of children in her care," that report stated.

Tesh said he doesn't believe that explanation is sufficient to explain the failure of so many people to pick up on the warning signs.

"I don't really buy the argument that, 'Boy, she pulled the wool over all of our eyes,' " he said.

The lawsuit will likely take a long time to be sorted out. An initial step will be responses filed by each of the defendants, and the beginning of the discovery process, which Tesh said could take up to a year.

In addition to DSHS and the doctors, the suit names the Rockwood Clinic, where Fregeau worked, and three DSHS employees as defendants: Loretta Mee, Robert Tadlock and Dwayne Thurman.


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