DRUGS AND DOUBT IN WENATCHEE

Date: 1997-04-02

MEDICATIONS CLOUD INVESTIGATION OF SEX CASES

April 2, 1997
Steven Goldsmith

More than a third of the alleged victims of Wenatchee's child sex ring were placed on psychotropic drugs paid for by the state once they entered foster care.

Use of the drugs may have affected the children's testimony in the highly charged sex cases. At the very least, it created the appearance of a conflict of interest for the state that continues today, a Post-Intelligencer investigation found.

Exonerated defendants claim memories of sexual abuse were planted by investigators after the children became wards of the state.

Psychotropic drugs were part of the "recovered memory" techniques used to convince children they had been victims of sex crimes, said Kathryn Lyon, an Olympia attorney whose upcoming book dissects the Wenatchee investigations.

In 1994 and 1995, authorities in Central Washington arrested 28 Wenatchee-area adults they said forced some 50 children to have sex with them as part of a loosely knit ring. Many of the crimes allegedly happened inside the Pentecostal church, and police said others took place in the families' homes.

Lyon, a former public defender, has devoted the past two years to producing a 174-page report and a book to be published this fall criticizing the way Wenatchee policeman Bob Perez and state child welfare authorities handled witnesses.

"It's hard not to draw the conclusion that 'therapy' was a process of extracting information," Lyon said in an interview. "There's a point at which these kids are not going to know what the truth is anymore."

Roy Harrington, regional children's services administrator for the state Department of Social and Health Services, said the Wenatchee children never were manipulated by foster parents or state-paid counselors to help prosecutors."I think the foster care system in Chelan and Douglas counties functioned much better than the conventional wisdom about foster care would have it," he said.

That's not the way Sarah "Sam" Doggett remembers it.

Less than two weeks after her parents' arrest in the Wenatchee sex investigation, her foster mother drove Doggett to the local Child Protective Services office. Two uniformed men strapped Doggett to a stretcher and wheeled her to an ambulance.

She was driven 300 miles to Pine Crest, a mental hospital in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, where for a month, Doggett contends, therapists tried to get her to swallow mood-altering pills and admit to having been sexually abused by her parents.

"They kept saying, 'You need to get your moods fixed,"' said Doggett, now 18 and thankful she is no longer a Washington state foster child.

Doggett's claims, made in a lawsuit against Wenatchee police, counselors and DSHS, are disputed by the defendants.

But Doggett isn't the only Wenatchee foster child for whom the lines blurred between care and criminal prosecution. Critics say the vulnerability of the Wenatchee children may have led them to say what investigators wanted to hear.

At the very least, the Post-Intelligencer found, the cases reveal the potential conflict of interest when children in state care are also key witnesses in court - particularly when those children are taking powerful psychotropic drugs.

The most controversial case is that of the chief witness in several of the sex prosecutions, a 14-year-old girl referred to in court hearings as "M.E." whose parents pleaded guilty to sexually abusing her.

M.E. was a foster daughter of Perez, the man who spearheaded the Wenatchee investigations. She also was a pivotal witness against several of the alleged molesters Perez targeted, including Robert Roberson, pastor of the East Wenatchee Pentecostal Church.

According to court documents, M.E. now is confined to a locked mental hospital, where she is undergoing counseling with Cindy Andrews, a mental health worker under contract with the state.

State Rep. Steve Hargrove, R-Poulsbo, sought in January to meet with M.E., but was rebuffed by her temporary guardian, Neil Fuller, a Wenatchee attorney and pro-tem judge.

Hargrove said he wanted to put to rest fears that M.E. was being influenced by people with a stake in how she testifies. "By involuntarily committing the girl to an institution and placing her under the exclusive care of a counselor who is also a defendant in (a) lawsuit, we are committing the same indiscretions that made this case such a mess in the first place."

Roberson and his wife, both of whom were acquitted of the sex charges, are suing the state and Andrews, M.E.'s counselor. They and other Wenatchee residents recently claimed in court that the girl's testimony in the lawsuits could be influenced by state "brainwashing," possibly involving psychotropic drugs.

Spokane County Superior Court Judge Michael Donohue conceded in a February hearing on the case that the state's continuing contact with M.E. "has a rather strange aroma."

Andrews, who also is a defendant in Doggett's lawsuit, declined requests for interviews through her attorney. He cited judicial warnings about pretrial publicity.

Harrington of DSHS said the welfare of M.E. and other children involved in the Wenatchee sex-ring investigation is protected by an independent juvenile court and its appointed temporary guardian.

State officials deny that drugs were used to influence the children in their care, but records obtained by the Post-Intelligencer show the children taking them were in fragile - and vulnerable - states. Among those who tried to kill or maim themselves while in foster care were:

A 12-year-old boy taking the anti-depressant Zoloft who heard voices telling him to hang himself by jumping off a milk crate with a rope around his neck. His counselor worried he was suffering from memory impairment as a side effect of the drug. He originally was sent to Pine Crest, but later was transferred to an institution in King County where he tried to kill himself.

A 15-year-old developmentally delayed boy who became a chief witness in several of the cases after being sent to Pine Crest. He attempted suicide while on psychotropic drugs.

A boy described in medical records as "in denial" and "non-compliant" after his parents were sentenced to prison on sex charges. At age 9, in April 1995, he tried to run away from the foster home he shared with two other alleged sex-ring children. Doctors increased his dosage of Zoloft, and the fourth-grader "tried to stick (a) metal object through his chest," according to a DSHS episode report. He then entered a Seattle psychiatric hospital, where he was prescribed the anti-depressant amitriptyline.

Records show that psychotropic drugs were prescribed for at least 10 of the 30 Wenatchee children who ended up in foster care.

In the case of one 13-year-old girl, her medical notes indicate that Andrews, the DSHS counselor, "apparently would like her on medications." The girl later was given Paxil.

Doggett said she successfully resisted the attempts to put her on anti-depressants. She was the only holdout among her family's four girls, and the only one to consistently deny to Perez that her parents had molested them.

Perez investigated the family when the parents themselves asked the state for help after discovering that their 13-year-old son had forced himself on a younger sister. Doggett and her parents contend that state-contracted counselors used intimidation and controversial memory recovery techniques involving drugs and hypnosis to implant the idea in her young siblings that their devout Mormon parents had sexually abused them.

Mark and Carol Doggett were convicted of one count each of child rape, but acquitted of other charges involving four of their five children.

Doggett said in a recent interview that she believes Pine Crest was less a place of healing than a tool of investigators. One passage in her medical charts indicates that she "had to earn privileges to be alone in her room by cooperating." She said her unusual stubbornness is the only thing that preserved her grip on reality.

Pine Crest's therapists worked closely with Washington child welfare authorities, who sent 164 children to the Idaho hospital the year before Doggett was confined, according to DSHS records.

"At the time they were sent, there were no other resources," said Walt Gearhart, administrator of the public mental health network for Chelan and Douglas counties.

Harrington said any child sent to Pine Crest was properly certified by a mental health professional. But Doggett's attorney, Bruce Gore, said that documentation was for a voluntary stay, and Doggett was told she could not leave.

Pine Crest was sold in January by Sterling Health Care Corp. to a group of private owners, according to Al Gale, administrator of what is now called Inland Behavioral Health Institute. He said the hospital is now under different management. Terry Whitten, a Spokane attorney representing Sterling Health Care, said its parent company filed for bankruptcy.

Gearhart, the local mental health chief in Wenatchee, called the fate of children caught up in the sex case a tragedy. "Whether or not there was a sex ring," he said, "these kids are traumatized and need help. I have a hard time thinking those kids fared well. We gave them the best service we could."

In February, Doggett graduated from an alternative high school in the Northern California town of Ukiah. A few weeks before graduation, she shared a podium with Arthur Miller, author of "The Crucible," a play about the 17th-century Salem witch trials.

Doggett said she plans to attend college in Provo, Utah, next year. She'll major in psychology.

-- Steven Goldsmith can be reached by phone at (206) 448-8322 and by e-mail at stevengoldsmith@seattle-pi.com

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