Settlement Reached in child abuse case

Date: 2012-10-01
Source: dshs.wa.gov

Olympia - After extensive negotiations, the principal terms of a settlement agreement have been reached today. The settlement, once approved by the Court, will pay the four plaintiffs $5.3 million to resolve both the alleged negligence and civil rights claims against the Department of Social and Health Services and one individually named social worker.

This lawsuit was originally filed in Stevens County Superior Court, but removed to the United States District Court (Eastern District-Spokane Division). The case was scheduled for trial in 2013. By settling prior to trial, the plaintiffs and the Department avoid the expense of a costly and complex trial and further stress for the plaintiffs.

The plaintiffs allege that due to negligent placement and licensing, they were placed in an abusive foster home with Sylvia and Michael Wenger, who later adopted the children. The plaintiffs were emotionally, physically and/or sexually abused in the home. In addition, the plaintiffs allege that their civil rights were violated by one of the social workers who oversaw their placement.

The four children were placed in the foster home in 1996 and were later adopted in 1998 and 2000. In 2001, one of the children ran away and disclosed that she was being physically and sexually abused by Michael Wenger. The other siblings were then removed from the home. Michael Wenger was convicted of child molestation in the first degree. He served seven years in prison and is currently registered as a Level II sex offender.

"It is truly unfortunate that these children suffered at the hands of adults they had trusted to love and keep them safe," said DSHS Children's Administration Assistant Secretary Denise Revels Robinson.

"Although nothing can change what happened in that home, DSHS believes that the agreement fairly compensates these individuals, who can use the proceeds to meet any special needs they may have in the future," said DSHS spokeswoman Chris Case.

Beginning in 1996, a separate division within the Children's Administration of DSHS was created, the Division of Licensed Resources (DLR). This separation was designed to address situations that might pose a conflict of interest when social workers were responsible for both licensing of foster homes and placement of children in those homes.

Using lessons learned from this and previous cases of child abuse and neglect, DSHS has made many changes to help further strengthen the focus on child safety, including:

  • The Department of Licensed Resources and Department of Children and Family Services work closely together to ensure that child safety is the primary focus of both divisions. Collaboration between the two divisions occurs during Child Protective Team collaborations, Family Team Decision Making meetings, permanent placement planning meetings and adoption planning reviews.
  • The process for placing children is now more formal. The Family Team Decision Making process includes social workers from different programs, the children's families and service providers.
  • The home study process is a more detailed evaluation of a prospective foster family and includes several meetings with the family, endorsements by extended family members, references and other family contacts.
  • A comprehensive investigative assessment assists social workers in documenting all case activities and assists supervisors in their review and approval of investigative work.
  • A standardized, automated decision process creates more consistency to ensure that allegations of child abuse and neglect are appropriately screened in and investigated statewide.
  • Instead of taking a child's word that they are not being abused or neglected, investigators also focus on gathering additional information from other sources.
  • The focus on assessing child safety continues as long as the Department is involved with the biological and foster family.
  • The Children's Administration now responds to critical incidents by immediately communicating with the team of people working with the family to learn what happened, what services have been provided and determine next steps to ensure child safety.
  • Social workers are required to make monthly health and safety visits with children in out-of-home placements. The visit is to assess the foster family or caregiver's ability and capacity to continue to meet the child's needs.
  • There is specific licensing, home study and adoption training for staff.
  • The background check process now includes fingerprint based checks.

"We can't emphasize enough the importance of family, neighbors and schools in keeping children safe from abuse and neglect. Public child welfare is a shared responsibility," Case said. "You can report abuse or neglect of a child or vulnerable adult at 1-866 ENDHARM (1-866-363-4276) or, in an emergency situation, call 9-1-1."

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