Foster children who were starved file $32 million suit against Oregon
By Aimee Green, The Oregonian
December 08, 2009, 9:02PM
Attorneys for an 8-year-old boy and a 10-year-old girl who were nearly starved to death by their Clackamas County foster parents in 2004 have filed suit against the state child-welfare agency for nearly $32 million.
The lawsuits -- filed Friday and Monday -- offer excruciating, never-before-public details into the lives of the little girl then known as Jordan Knapp and her younger brother, who have since been adopted. Five years ago this week, the Sandy-area girl was flown by Life Flight helicopter to OHSU Hospital with a broken skull. She was 5 years old and weighed 28 pounds, a weight so low it isn't listed on growth charts for children of that age.
Her condition in the crowded double-wide trailer she shared with her brother, six other children and their foster parents, Thelma and William Beaver, stirred an uproar across the state with demands for reform of the foster care system.
The Legislature ordered the Oregon Department of Human Services to investigate when a child under state supervision is seriously injured or killed and make the findings public. Such reviews are intended to improve the agency.
Scott Kocher, an attorney representing Jordan's interests, said the reports in Jordan's case were vague and failed to effectively address shortfalls in the system.
The reports didn't name the caseworkers or supervisors who failed to intervene as Jordan and her brother wasted away. DHS said at the time only that it had taken "appropriate personnel or disciplinary action with regard to four employees."
The suit details how Jordan repeatedly told DHS workers she was beaten and starved, but they did not believe her. Those details were not included in the agency's published reports.
"I have a concern that there hasn't been sufficient transparency and accountability in this case," Kocher said. "It's our hope that this claim will address that and make the system safer for foster children."
Jordan and her brother were removed from their biological mother's home because of concerns she was using meth. They moved in with the Beavers in September 2002.
According to the suits, the Beavers horribly mistreated the children, striking Jordan's head against a bench until she lost consciousness, fracturing her skull and causing bleeding near her brain and brain damage. They also withheld food, beat her hands with a wooden spoon, beat her head against the floor, hit her with a hairbrush, held her upside down by her feet and hit her head against furniture and door frames, and forced her to sleep outdoors without blankets.
In May 2003, Jordan asked to speak to a DHS caseworker privately, then told the caseworker that her foster mother "always spanks me. I want her to stop spanking me."
The following month, a caseworker documented that Jordan ate five cups of fruit in the presence of the caseworker.
And while at McDonald's, Jordan asked for food from a stranger and told the stranger that her foster mom was starving her, according to the suits.
Jordan's little brother, too, was starving and was hospitalized, according to his suit. A child advocate nicknamed him "Mr. Won't Smile." The child-welfare agency received an anonymous call in February 2004 about the little boy's weight and unexplained bruises.
Kocher said his firm has collected 2,252 pages of documents on the case, and he expects to acquire thousands of pages more.
The state estimates that approximately 100 Oregon foster children are abused or neglected each year while under the supervision of DHS. But civil attorneys say few suits are filed because the obvious plaintiffs -- the injured or dead children's parents -- are often out of the picture.
"The question is who is looking out for the child's legal rights?" Kocher said. "Is DHS going to say, 'Did we mess up? Are we going to have an attorney look at the case?'"
Jordan's suit seeks up to $28.5 million, noting that she will need lifetime mental and physical care. Her little brother's suit seeks up to $3.3 million. Both suits were filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court.
The suits list the following parties as defendants: DHS, caseworkers Steve Duerscherl and Lesley Willette, supervisor Shirley Vollmuller, the Beavers, a former attorney for the children, and doctors who didn't report bruises they repeatedly discovered on Jordan's brother.
Duerscherl has retired. Willette still works as a caseworker, and Vollmuller works as a manager for DHS.
Tony Green, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Justice, which will defend the state, said he couldn't comment because of the pending litigation.
Thelma Beaver was sentenced to five years in prison for criminal mistreatment of Jordan, and William Beaver received two years of probation for a lesser charge.