Submitted by Darren Smith, Guest Blogger
If allegations are proven it would reveal a shocking and systemic dereliction of duty of Washington’s Child Protective Services to investigate and properly respond to multiple reports of abuse and neglect lasting many years of a family of children. The abuses ranged from mental and verbal abuse to felony assaults against a child.
In March of 2013 the children’s parents Sandra and Jeff Weller of Vancouver were each sentenced to twenty years in prison after having been convicted of fourteen counts of child abuse; double the statutory determinate maximum sentence. Clark County Superior Court Judge Barbara Johnson levied the exceptional sentence due to the severity of the crimes.
The claim against the state on behalf of five children alleges nearly ten years of abuse of the children by the parents where little to no action was taken by Child Protective Services to address the issues and protect the children from further crimes by the parents.
According to Washington Law, a claim must be filed sixty days before commencing a lawsuit against the state. If the state does not offer settlement agreeable to the plaintiffs, the attorneys for the victims have stated they intend to file a lawsuit. The claim demands damages of $15,000,000 for the presently eighteen year old twins and $8,000,000 each for the three younger children.
During the criminal trial, the eldest son testified that the children would be beaten with a long (42 inch) bloodstained board by their father as the mother often watched. He stated “She would call for Jeff and tell him it’s time for their beating and he would say ‘how many?’ and she would tell him and she would either sit there and watching or go and watch TV.”
According to allegations made against the state and Child Protective Services the abuse and neglect was reported by not just one source but many individuals, school officials and medical professionals. At least twenty six reports were made over an eight year time frame. The response by CPS was either to not act upon the report or to dismiss without further investigation despite strong assertions abuse or neglect was occurring. Not only this, but prior to nearly all the allegations or reports there had been history that should have been considered indicating a pattern of independent reporting parties making complaints of consistent patterns.
According to records made available, the reports to CPS included the following:
1/7/2003 – An unidentified caller reports suspicions of physical neglect.
12/4/03 – An unidentified caller reports that Sandra Weller is physically neglecting and abusing her children.
4/7/04 – A relative reports he’s concerned for the children based on their mother’s parenting.
4/9/04 – A relative reports the mother is emotionally abusing the children and requests CPS ask for a welfare check by Vancouver Police.
6/15/04 – An unidentified caller reports that Jeff Weller is physically abusing his children.
7/24/04 – An unidentified caller accuses the mother of physical neglect and sexual abuse.
8/1/04 – An unidentified caller suspects the mother of physical neglect and abuse.
9/27/04 – An unidentified caller is concerned food is being withheld from the children, that food is locked up in the home, and that the mother locks children in their rooms for two days.
1/3/05 and 1/8/05 – An unidentified caller reports the mother is physically neglecting her children.
3/4/05 – An unidentified caller reports the mother is physically neglecting her children.
5/5/05 – A relative calls with concerns about the children and the CPS investigation. He’s told the case is closed and the social worker will not be calling him back.
5/11/05 – A school nurse calls with concerns about the children’s hunger and the mother’s emotional abuse of the children. She reports that Sandra Weller chastised the children in public, calling them “criminals, con artists, thieves … who ruined her life, (are) wrecking her marriage and her house.”
5/13/05 – A school secretary calls with concerns of mental abuse. She reports the mother accused her daughter of stealing $400 worth of meat and refuses to pack a lunch for the child because she will “hog it down and stash it up (her) sleeve for later.”
9/6/05 – A medical professional calls with concerns of emotional abuse. She reports that Sandra Weller described her daughter as being a “monster and evil” and does not exhibit any type of nurturing toward the child.
9/7/05 – A medical professional reports concerns that one of the children has not put on any weight in a year and that the child is 10 but appears to be only 5 years old.
2/5/06 – An unidentified caller reports the mother is physically neglecting her children.
2/10/06 – A teacher calls with “extreme” concerns that the children are not fed at home and that the mother calls the children “stupid, retarded, thieves.” The teacher reports he is “100% certain” the children are not safe at home.
2/13/06 – A teacher reports the mother has stated several times that “she’d love to get rid (of her two adopted children) but that she gets the adoption support (money) and she needs it.”
7/17/06 – An unidentified caller reports the mother is physically neglecting her children.
12/31/07 – A child specialist reports that the children complain of receiving “very little food,” that this has been a long time concern and that the parents placed a lock on their refrigerator door.
1/4/08 – The youngest child, 9-years-old at the time, tells a social worker he had to stand in the corner for a couple of days as punishment, that he is hit with a belt for lying, and that he goes without food. The social worker writes in his report that he told the child he didn’t believe him and that the child is “manipulative.”
According to Attorney Ian Bower “They should have intervened. They should have taken the children from the home and at a minimum they were required under Washington law to call law enforcement. They didn’t do any of those things.”
Washington Law mandates the reporting under RCW 74.13.031(3) which reads in pertinent part “The department shall investigate complaints of any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker that results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, or sexual abuse or exploitation, or that presents an imminent risk of serious harm…If the investigation reveals that a crime against a child may have been committed, the department shall notify the appropriate law enforcement agency.”
State law is clear as to what constitutes child abuse. In addition to the ordinary criminal assault type statutes there is in particular Chapter 9A.42 RCW “Criminal Mistreatment” for withholding the basic necessities of life which under RCW 9A.42.010(1) “Basic necessities of life” means food, water, shelter, clothing, and medically necessary health care, including but not limited to health-related treatment or activities, hygiene, oxygen, and medication.” The punishment ranges from a misdemeanor in the case of fourth degree to a Class B felony for first degree.
Certainly from the allegations reported there were many examples of withholding food and other necessities but CPS is alleged to have acted with what could be regarded as at least indifference to the welfare of these children and in some cases reckless disregard.
Ultimately it was not until October of 2011 when one of the victim children left in a school counselor’s office a secret note begging for help that a credible investigation was performed by CPS and Police. The note read (with portions redacted):
Dear Katie: This is going to sound realy weird, but I need you to call CPS. Me and (redacted) are being beat with a board about three and a half feet long. Jeff and Sandy keep it behind the laundry room door. If you need proof, the bottom portion of the stick is literaly covered in dry blood but be warned, if (redacted) is asked by the social worker or the cops he has already been forced to lie…Also, if you look, there are already Police and CPS records of this from when my two step-brothers tried to help and reported it. But they messed up and called it a “two-by-four” (which is way to big). We haven’t goten the board in a couple weeks, but they have promised it to us after we leave your office because our room is not clean…PLEASE HELP!”
Assaulting a child using the described board is at minimum a Class C Felony.
Two days later, CPS and police arrived at the home and found startling evidence of abuse and neglect. The case reports included the following statements:
- The 16-year old twins appeared emaciated.
- The oldest girl was bald, most likely from malnutrition.
- The refrigerator was sealed with a bike lock, and the pantry was padlocked. Both were amply stocked with food.
- The children had used knives to open cans of food they were able to obtain.
- Empty cans were found in the children’s bedrooms, as well as a hole in one wall that the children created to secretly pass food to each other.
- Cameras, alarms and locks were on the children’s doors and windows.
- A 42-inch board was found and identified by police as a weapon used for beatings. One end of it was stained with dried blood.
As a result of events described in the criminal trial of the parents, Judge Johnson called the defendants’ behavior as “incomprehensible” at their sentencing. If the allegations in the civil action are proven the same could be said of Child Protective Services.
Unfortunately to all in this state, this is not the first case of its kind alleged against CPS. There are numerous examples of this agency failing to act as described above and for over-reacting on cases that do not in any way constitute abuse or neglect. It certainly is worth considering an overhaul of the procedures, management and culture of this state agency before incidents like this tragedy reoccur.
The Department of Social and Health Services, the parent agency of Child Protective Services, declined to comment to an investigative news reporter citing pending litigation.
Department of Social and Health Services / Child Protective Services
Revised Code of Washington