Previous complaints against foster father ignored

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Date: 2006-07-26

Previous complaints against foster father ignored

July 26, 2006
By Maureen O'Hagan and Nathan Hurst
Seattle Times

The foster father had two faces.

On one side were the glowing letters of reference, some 20 in all.

Enrique Fabregas had a "compassionate heart," wrote James Sinclair of Overlake Christian Church. He provided "safe and loving care" for children, wrote Douglas Hamilton with the Consulate General of Canada. He's a "personal friend," wrote a Seattle police officer.

The state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) gave these references considerable weight when they licensed Fabregas as a foster father, allowing him to take three girls into his home beginning in 1998.

They didn't give so much weight, however, to Fabregas' other side.

DSHS records show that between 1996 and 2004 Fabregas, of Redmond, was the subject of 25 complaints to the agency, eight of them alleging sexual abuse or exploitation. But only one of those resulted in action against Fabregas — failing to report there was a dog in the home. It now appears DSHS got it backward by placing so much stock in the references and not enough in the complaints.

Fabregas, an unemployed restaurant worker and a member of the Overlake church's choir, was charged last month with three counts of sexual exploitation of a minor and possession of child pornography.

Court documents allege that his former foster daughter, Estera Tamas, now 19, was horrifically abused by Fabregas, an ordeal that transformed her from a good student to a drug-addicted dropout.

Documents released Tuesday afternoon by DSHS paint a fuller portrait of what critics say were the agency's lapses. The documents show how the state dismissed one complaint after another and allowed children to stay in the home until a Redmond detective got a search warrant in February. The detective, Jennifer Baldwin, found photographs and videos depicting child pornography and Estera's abuse.

"Fabregas pulled the wool over the eyes of DSHS," said David P. Moody, an attorney representing Tamas and her sister, Ruth. "Unbelievably, DSHS was charmed by this man to the detriment of these vulnerable young girls."

Mike Tornquist, administrator for the licensing arm of the agency, said the supportive letters, combined with a series of recantations by the alleged victims, contributed to the agency's decisions. DSHS investigations did not substantiate a single complaint against Fabregas, records show.

Although The Times generally does not identify sexual-abuse victims, Estera Tamas consented to the use of her name. The Times was unable to contact another girl who had been adopted by Fabregas (and who is now 12), so she is not being named. She is now living with another foster family; the Tamas sisters are living on their own.

Ruth Tamas, who is a year younger than her sister Estera, was placed in Fabregas' home in 2002. She said she was physically abused by Fabregas until she demanded to be removed from the home in 2004. (She has not alleged sexual abuse.)

Looking back, she's left wondering how Fabregas was licensed as a foster parent in the first place.

Although in agency documents Fabregas claimed at times to be free of criminal convictions, records show he had at least six convictions for crimes including carrying a concealed weapon, theft and drug possession before receiving his foster-care license.

He also had a history of drug abuse, including cocaine use. But after completing treatment, a judge issued him a "certificate of rehabilitation."

In addition, even before he had applied for a license, DSHS investigated complaints against Fabregas of sexual abuse and physical neglect. The agency did not substantiate either complaint.

Records also show Fabregas' licensing interviews with DSHS did not go smoothly.

He claimed to have a high-school diploma but couldn't remember the name of the school, where it was or when he graduated. He said he was in the Navy SEALs but couldn't remember when. He said he worked nights but "shrugged, mumbled and tried to change the subject" when the interviewer asked him who would watch the kids while he was at work.

Nonetheless, he was granted a license in 1998 and became a foster parent to the daughter of an ex-girlfriend. The mother lost custody of the child because of abusing alcohol and the girl suffered from fetal alcohol effects as a result, according to DSHS records.

"I think there was a lot of stock put in the certificate of rehabilitation and the support coming from the community," Tornquist said, explaining the decision to grant the license.

Fabregas legally adopted that girl in 1999 and allowed his foster-care license to lapse after that.

Over the next few years, he was the subject of seven complaints, including two alleging sexual exploitation. Those complaints were closed as unfounded. He was also arrested in 2001 for domestic violence, but those charges were dropped.

Again, the agency looked past these issues and in 2002 granted Fabregas a new foster-care license. This time, he took in the Tamas sisters, the daughters of another ex-girlfriend who went to prison. After that, he was the subject of 15 more complaints, including allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation. The agency deemed all of them to be unfounded.

Every time investigators showed up, Fabregas had his supportive letters handy.

"He pulls out a notebook of references and says, 'Look, these people say I'm a good man.' DSHS ... takes them at face value ... declares the allegations unfounded and moves on," Moody said.

Tornquist said the agency was stymied because of the "continuous recanting of the girls." The DSHS documents show that Estera Tamas at times denied she was being abused.

Ruth Tamas said that she never changed her story — and it was shocking. Immediately before being removed from the home, she claimed to have seen a video of Fabregas sexually abusing Estera. She told her new foster mother. Another Tamas sister, who was living in another foster home, said Estera confided in her, too.

The two foster mothers began a campaign in the summer of 2004 to get Estera and the adopted daughter out of Fabregas' home, writing letters and calling top-ranking DSHS officials. Their complaints, like the others, were brushed aside.

"He knows how to work the system," Ruth said. "That's why nobody believed us."

Maureen O'Hagan: 206-464-2562 or mohagan@seattletimes.com

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