Foster father goes on trial in sex abuse case

Two boys who were in his care say Joseph L. Larson sexually abused them. His lawyer termed the allegations "horrible," said he "dedicated his life to helping troubled kids."

By David Chanen

May 1, 2011/StarTribune

For nearly a decade, the boys from St. Paul lived with what authorities say was a terrible secret. Last summer, authorities were finally able to shine a light on the boys' allegations: They'd been sexually abused as foster children by the man entrusted to care for them.

Joseph L. Larson, 34, will go on trial Monday over the allegations, which prosecutors say are very rare. Because of his position of authority, prosecutors have already filed a motion to seek an upward departure from state sentencing guidelines if Larson is convicted.

Larson said through his attorney that he is looking forward to his day in court. Jury selection in the case concerning one of the foster children is scheduled to start Monday in St. Paul. Larson also is faces more recently filed felony charges in Anoka County of possession of child pornography.

"While these allegations are horrible, Joe has never and would never hurt a child," said Katie Rindfleisch, Larson's attorney. "In fact, he had dedicated his life to helping troubled kids."

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi declined to comment about Larson's case. Speaking generally, he said, "Kids in foster care are already victims and highly vulnerable, and the system needs to protect them."

Before he was charged last August, Larson was investigated twice by a child pornography task force but not charged. He also had had his foster care license closed after one of the youths in the current case made an allegation against him, according to court documents.

Larson is charged with one count each of felony criminal sexual misconduct. One of the former foster children, now 17, was in his care from 2002 to 2005; the other, now 23, was with him for three months in 2003. Monday's trial is for the case involving the 17-year-old.

Licensed in 2002

Larson became a licensed foster parent through a private agency, PATH Minnesota Inc., in Monticello in 2002. Private and county agencies process all foster care applications, and the requirements are the same for each. Background studies are submitted to the state's Department of Human Services, which completes the inspection of the prospective foster care home.

Larson cared for four children, including two brothers, while licensed with PATH Minnesota.

In November 2004, a state task force received a report from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement about information discovered during an Internet child pornography investigation. Investigators found credit cards issued to Larson had been used to buy access to child pornography websites in 2002 and 2003, court documents said.

Two officers assigned to the state's Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force looked into the report but didn't have enough for a warrant to search his computer, said officer John Keating, a spokesman for the St. Paul Police Department. PATH Minnesota wasn't informed about the report, said George Hendrickson, PATH's CEO. "Had we known about the allegations, we would have been mandated to take action," he said.

In January 2006, the Internet crimes task force again investigated Larson, going to his house. He told investigators the credit cards used to access child porn websites were stolen in 2004 but he hadn't reported it to police, court documents said.

Larson told police he wouldn't consent to a search of his computer because it contained private information about foster children, according to a police report. He also questioned whether the investigators were really police officers, the documents said. Before leaving, one investigator told Larson he was bothered that someone involved in foster care "would not do everything in their power to work with law enforcement in order to show non-involvement with this offense," the document said.

By this time, the 17-year-old and his brother were no longer in Larson's care and were with a foster parent in Hennepin County, court documents said. Larson told the police he wished to adopt the children and repeatedly said he would not hurt children, according to the document. But in February 2006, the 17-year-old, then age 12, told his new foster mother that Larson did inappropriate things to him and also said Larson kissed one of the boy's friends, a different document said. He and the friend later repeated the allegations to social workers. The allegations were investigated, but no case was brought against Larson.

Because of the pending investigation, PATH Minnesota closed Larson's foster care license in May 2006. His attorney said a letter she received from the agency stated the license was closed at Larson's request. The letter, signed by a PATH Minnesota regional director, also said "Joe has been a kind and caring foster parent and has given good service to PATH." Larson served on the agency's board and was a member of the education committee.

Sought new license

Larson applied for a new foster care license through Ramsey County in fall 2007. It was approved but revoked a year later by the Department of Human Services when the county learned Larson had not disclosed that he had been previously licensed and that there was a pending investigation by law enforcement, according to a department revocation letter.

In February 2010, St. Paul police were again alerted when the 17-year-old told a social worker about sex abuse incidents that allegedly occurred during his time in Larson's care, according to a criminal complaint filed against Larson.

After speaking with the boy, police interviewed the foster child who is now 23 and who had lived with Larson for three months in 2003 when he was 14 or 15.

Larson was charged with criminal sexual misconduct in August. The child pornography criminal complaint in Anoka County was filed four months later.

In a short statement, Rindfleisch said her client has provided foster, respite and personal attendant care for more than 20 children in need. Larson also "serves our country in the National Guard and has since 2007," she said. At trial, she said, she plans to call several witnesses who will testify that Larson is caring, trustworthy and honest.

"Some of our witnesses have known Joe for over 10 years and some are former foster children and will share how Joe saved their lives," she said. "This has been a terrible and emotional time for Joe. Although he regrets there has to be a trial, Joe looks forward to proving his innocence in court."

David Chanen • 612-673-4465

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From foster care to adoption

There are several somewhat related pieces that feature "well respected" service-people who happen to love children, in a sexual way.  Surely the general population is not stupid enough to believe sexually abusive/exploiting pedophiles in foster-care/Adoptionland do not exist.  Often times these pillars of society are the most caring, honest, and trustworthy sociopaths one will ever have the pleasure of meeting and knowing.  That's how demented and sick and evil these characters can be!

This particular news-piece, however, is much more than a simple complaint made against a long-term foster-care provider.  This article reflects all that is still not being done about the known problems related to lax home-studies and the foster-care licensing process.  Readers are encouraged to refer to Let's Review...,  (a look at foster-care requirements), Let's Review (2), (a closer look at home-study reports) and last but not least, Choices and Decisions,  a closer look at the difference between the infant adoption process, the international adoption process, and adoption through foster-care, and the Federal requirements, assigned to American foster-care providers and state licensing requirements. 

Children put in-care are not safe.  They are not safe in foreign orphanages; they are not safe in foster-care systems. Add the fact that more and more adoption selections are based on foster care placements, you have a whole new mix of crazy and unfit messing with the lives of children.  And all of this is going unmonitored.  Why?  Because time is money, and whilst a foreign child can fetch $20-40k a head, there's tight budgets and very little spending when it comes to care given to local children in-need.  [This is the very reason I get furious each time I learn a private "not-for-profit" agency director/executive is receiving a 6-figure salary on an annual basis, but the shuffled foster kid forced to move from home to home is using garbage bags as luggage.]

Adoptable American children put in care are put at an even higher risk of abuse when these unmonitored foster parents are approved to adopt.  There is no excuse for the gaps and oversights seen in so many private and state foster/adoption agencies.  There is no excuse for poor staffing, if a single employee is making over 90k a year.  There is no reason to keep a lazy incompetent social worker on-board if his/her paid job responsibility includes, follow-up investigations/ monitoring with written report, and those cases are not being investigated and those reports are late and incomplete.  In terms of any care-system with health service, the rules and responsibility are pretty simple:  help others keep children in-care reasonably safe. [Do unto others as you would want others to and for you.]

There is no good reason for case monitoring to go undone!  There is no reason for staffing to be low when executive salaries are high. This combination of laziness and greed is putting the lives of children in terrible risk and danger, much like this same mentality is putting seniors in-care in coffins, after they endure months/years of neglect that lead to disfiguring contractures and bed sores that go to the bone.

What blows my mind is the Federal interest given to child-on-child abuse in foster care settings. THAT, local politicians and federal courts will worry about.... because of the law-suits.

The Florida Department of Children and Families has settled all claims with three children who were abused by other children living in their Nassau County foster home, attorneys announced this afternoon.

The settlements total $2.9 million and follow a groundbreaking ruling in December by a federal appeals court in Atlanta that upheld their right to sue on grounds that DCF was "deliberately indifferent" to the danger they were in.

"This decision represents a landmark win in the fight to protect all foster children from child-on-child sexual abuse in foster care," said attorney Brian Cabrey, who represented the victims. He said it was the first case nationally to recognize the rights of foster children to be protected from child-on-child abuse.

According to the lawsuit, the three pre-school-aged children were left unsupervised with two teenage foster kids known to be sexually aggressive and were repeatedly molested by the teens.

[From:  DCF settles federal abuse suit, 2009 ]

But what attention and incentive is protecting foster children from being abused by abusive foster/adoptive parents?

<crickets chirping>

Keep in mind, in 2003, it was actually reported, in writing,   “it is now a documented fact that no child is safe today in [the state’s] foster care.” Patterson, Special Unit of DYFS Is Called Failure, N.J. STAR LEDGER, May 23, 2003.  In fact, in 2005, a report written by Carolyn A. Kubitschek, states the following:

Our nation’s most vulnerable children deserve better. Having been removed from their homes and families—and often from their neighborhoods, friends, schools, and religious institutions—they are helpless and at the mercy of the agencies that are charged with providing substitute care. All too often, foster care agencies fail at their job. Government social workers also habitually fall short. Some children languish for years in abusive situations while the officials charged with protecting them either do not know what is going on or choose to see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil, and write no evil in the case file.

Placing foster children in abusive homes is appalling. Failing to protect them, so that the abuse continues, is inexcusable. It is also unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that people who are in government custody have a constitutional right to safe conditions during confinement and protection from injuries inflicted by others. The Court has extended its ruling to prisoners, suspects in jail awaiting trial, and involuntarily hospitalized mental patients. The Court has not yet decided whether foster children have the same right to protection as prisoners, criminal suspects, and mental patients. However, nine federal judicial circuits have ruled that foster children, who are innocent of any wrongdoing, are at least entitled to the same constitutional protections, in terms of safe conditions of confinement, as convicted felons. See Doe v. N.Y. City Dep’t of Soc. Servs., 649 F.2d 134 (2d Cir. 1981); Nicini v. Morra, 212 F.3d 798 (3d Cir. 2000); Hernandez v. Texas Dep’t of Protective & Regulatory Servs., 380 F.3d 872 (5th Cir. 2004); Meador v. Cabinet for Human Res., 902 F.2d 474 (6th Cir. 1990); K.H. by Murphy v. Morgan, 914 F.2d 846 (7th Cir. 1990); Norfleet v. Ark. Dep’t of Human Servs., 989 F.2d 289 (8th Cir. 1993); Miller v. Gammie, 335 F.3d 889 (9th Cir. 2003); Yvonne L. v. N.M. Dep’t of Human Servs., 959 F.2d 883 (10th Cir. 1992); Taylor v. Ledbetter, 818 F.2d 791 (11th Cir. 1987). When foster care agencies fail to provide those protections, they may be held liable.

The constitutional rulings have provided some redress for abused foster children. They may sue under 42 U.S.C. section 1983 to obtain compensation from the agencies that have wronged them. Importantly, the Constitution, as the supreme law of the land, trumps all state statutes and case law that might give full or partial sovereign immunity to government agencies or employees, or that might impose procedural prerequisites on children asserting claims against state or local governments. However, the law falls far short of providing a remedy for comprehensive damages for all abused foster children. Numerous hurdles remain for an abused foster child.

First, in states that provide foster care directly through a statewide program, the government agencies themselves are immune from suit in federal court under the Eleventh Amendment. (Where foster care is provided by counties or other local governments—as in New York, California, and some other states—the Eleventh Amendment does not prohibit lawsuits.) In all states, agency employees and officials may still be sued, however.

Second, in all lawsuits under 42 U.S.C. section 1983, the standard of liability is much higher than the negligence standard of tort law. Foster care agencies, officials, and employees will not be held to account unless their behavior exhibits “deliberate indifference” to a risk of harm to the foster children. Doe v. N.Y. City Dep’t of Soc. Servs., 649 F.2d 134. This heightened standard of liability has been exploited by careless foster care agencies to avoid legal consequences of their careless mistakes.

A third problem for abused foster children seeking legal recourse is the issue of proximate cause. As in tort law, defendants are responsible for the consequences of only those injuries that they cause. Foster care agencies and staff do not normally abuse foster children directly. The abuse is usually inflicted by foster parents and family members, or other foster children in the household. The courts have held that foster care agencies will be liable for abuse inflicted by foster parents when the agencies’ behavior was a “substantial factor” leading to the abuse. Id. If the chain of causation is found to be too attenuated, however, the agency will escape liability.

Finally, 42 U.S.C. section 1983 contains its own defense. All defendants can potentially claim the defense of qualified immunity and avoid paying damages if their actions or omissions violated a law that was not clearly established at the time, or if their actions or omissions were objectively reasonable, as determined by the judge (not the jury). While agencies themselves cannot claim qualified immunity, their employees can, and the employees have avoided compensating abused foster children by using that defense. See Camp v. Gregory, 67 F.3d 1286 (7th Cir. 1995).

[From:  Holding Foster Care Agencies Responsible for Abuse and Neglect ]

Soooo.....  if foster care is still so bad, (as bad, if not worse than foreign orphanage-living), and foster parents are allowed to adopt (FP's are often given preferential treatment in the adoption-pool), and employess of agencies can claim immunity in a lawsuit (and avoid compensating abused victims) how are the best interests of a child put in-care being served when foster/adoption agencies are not monitoring candidates and children better and licensing requirements are not as strict and demanding as they should be?

In the above news-report, the accused admits adoption was an option he had considered for himself. 

Larson told the police he wished to adopt the children and repeatedly said he would not hurt children, according to the document. But in February 2006, the 17-year-old, then age 12, told his new foster mother that Larson did inappropriate things to him and also said Larson kissed one of the boy's friends, a different document said. He and the friend later repeated the allegations to social workers. The allegations were investigated, but no case was brought against Larson.

Because of the pending investigation, PATH Minnesota closed Larson's foster care license in May 2006. His attorney said a letter she received from the agency stated the license was closed at Larson's request. The letter, signed by a PATH Minnesota regional director, also said "Joe has been a kind and caring foster parent and has given good service to PATH." Larson served on the agency's board and was a member of the education committee.

These are the situations where I wish I could be dictator for a day.  Just one day.

I'd send people like Mr. Larson, (or adoption heroes like William Fox, or Kodzo Dobosu or any found here ) to a local state facility, with a special shirt made just for him.  On the back, it would read, "I am accused of hurting foster children put in my care", or if the case fits, "I had sex with my foster/adopted child". 

I'd require said social service providor to stay at the local state facility, of my choosing, for one hour.  That's all he'd have to do... visit a few strangers for just one hour.  Before his arrival, I'd tell the guards to take a nice one hour lunch break.  Then I'd let the inmates get their hour of play.  I bet the caged boys would sleep well that night.

Adoptees deserve to have equal rights under law

As an adopted person, I have lost interest in civil right movements made by political activists found in the blogosphere and Bastard Nation.

You would think civil-right activists would be up in arms about the statement comparing the rights given to convicted felons versus the rights given the fostered child.

"Placing foster children in abusive homes is appalling. Failing to protect them, so that the abuse continues, is inexcusable. It is also unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that people who are in government custody have a constitutional right to safe conditions during confinement and protection from injuries inflicted by others. The Court has extended its ruling to prisoners, suspects in jail awaiting trial, and involuntarily hospitalized mental patients. The Court has not yet decided whether foster children have the same right to protection as prisoners, criminal suspects, and mental patients. However, nine federal judicial circuits have ruled that foster children, who are innocent of any wrongdoing, are at least entitled to the same constitutional protections, in terms of safe conditions of confinement, as convicted felons."

Instead, political activists wearing the "adoption reform" badge keep the OBC issue as a single-focus, benefiting only a small percent of birth-mothers and adopted persons living in specific regions in the USA. By making OBC an ongoing debate, less time and attention is given to more pressing matters, like child safety within the care-system. I'm inclined to believe agencies like the Evan B. Donaldson Institute prefer to placate the angry adoptee and birth mom by maintaining a safe yet generically neutral stand of human right issues, as they apply to members of the adoption triad. (exhibit A, an appeasing gesture showing unity? http://www.adoptioninstitute.org/images/OBC%20Handout.pdf.)

This is where you can see how myopic and ineffective adoption activists like those associated with Bastard Nation can be. As long as grand-stand arguments are made to bring more attention to the fight for OBC, less attention will go to more pressing matters, like safety within the foster or adoptive home. By keeping adoption reform activists divided, and focused on documents dated in the 1960's, those affected by current adoption practices are losing more than "the right to know".

Surely those agreeing to listen to invited speakers address the Supreme Court floor know this, since the real fight has to do with transparency in all acts related to adoption, not just access to some bits and pieces of a much larger puzzle.

Pound Pup Legacy