WOMAN FILES LAWSUIT AGAINST ADOPTION AGENCY

Date: 1998-11-17

Post-Tribune (IN)
Author: Scheffie Sarver, Staff Writer

The woman who lived with a Tennessee couple who stand accused of abusing her has filed a lawsuit against the local adoption agency from which she was taken nearly 21 years ago.

The federal lawsuit filed in Hammond Friday accuses Baptist Children's Home and Family Ministries, headquartered in Valparaiso, of neglecting the woman's safety and well-being during her adoption when she was four months old.

The adoption was never officially completed, according to court documents. And the children's home never requested or demanded the return of the young woman, her lawsuit claims.

The civil lawsuit also names Joseph and Evangeline Combs.

The family

Joseph Combs, 50, a former Baptist minister, and his wife Evangeline, 49, of Bristol, Tenn., are facing criminal charges of physically and sexually abusing and enslaving the young woman over her lifetime.

Joseph Combs is charged with eight counts of raping the young woman from 1989 to 1992.

The civil lawsuit alleges the Combses, throughout the woman's life, subjected her to physical injury, beating, trauma, confinement, torture, violent conduct, tormentation, molestation, mental abuse, distress, exploitation, sexual abuse and involuntary servitude.

Bristol authorities arrested the Combses after the woman was taken to a hospital and treated for poisoning. Hospital staff noticed several layers of scar tissue over much of her body, police said.

Jeffrey Thomas, an attorney representing the woman, said the adoption agency was accused in the lawsuit because it did not protect her safety and well-being.

"There was a failure in the adoption process. They were part of the process," Thomas said. "They didn't screen at all. I know in this particular case, mistakes were made."

Jim Geurink, president of the adoption agency, said he knows little of the lawsuit.

"The only thing I know about a lawsuit is what I've read in the newspaper," Geurink said.

"What is alleged to have happened is a tragedy. It breaks my heart."

Thomas said the agency should be served with the lawsuit later this week.

Sorting it out

Among the young woman's 19 allegations, the civil lawsuit alleges the adoption agency failed to take reasonable measures to evaluate the Combses prior to allowing them to have custody of the girl.

The woman also accuses the agency of failing to provide supervision while she was in the Combses' custody and failing to properly monitor the adoption process.

Cathy Graham, deputy director of the Indiana Division of Families and Children, said her agency is gathering information on the case, but declined to say if a formal investigation of the facility will be conducted.

Adoption agencies are licensed every two years, Graham said. Baptist Children's Homes and Family Ministries' license expires Dec. 31 and is up for renewal.

"In giving them that license, we assure they meet certain standards," Graham said.

During the review, adoption agencies' operating rules and regulations are scrutinized. State officials look at cases to make sure procedures and policies are followed, she said.

Preventive measures

And if the state agency finds negligence?

"If it's that serious, we'd take licensing measures," Graham said. That could include revoking the license and referring the case to Indiana's Attorney General or giving the agency a probationary license.

Jackie Barger is the executive director of Shults-Lewis Child and Family Services Inc., an agency that until last month provided adoption and foster care services.

Barger said most agencies provide a thorough screening of prospective parents and even do criminal background checks.

Baptist Children's Homes and Family Ministries always had a good reputation, Barger said.

"My understanding was they have a quality program," Barger said.

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