KENT, Wash. -- An Enumclaw couple who won a three-year battle with the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) over custody of their grandchild were back in a courtroom Wednesday seeking damages from the state.
Ann-Marie and Doug Stuth are suing on behalf of their 7-year-old grandchild, charging that DSHS mishandled the former foster child’s case so badly that it’s left her with psychological problems including anxiety, depression and PTSD.
“Because of DSHS' carelessness this child lost her childhood. It’s gone. She lives every day with fear and anxiety,” plaintiff attorney Marty McLean said in opening remarks at the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent. "DSHS put her in five foster homes before the age of four. ... She believes any minute someone could come to the door and take her away."
The saga began in 2006 when Child Protective Services (CPS) took Alexis Stuth from her 16-year-old biological mother who was allegedly providing inadequate care. Alexis was nine months old at the time, and CPS placed the toddler with the young mother’s parents, the Stuths. DSHS social workers praised them as wonderful caregivers.
But the state and the Stuths were at odds over the state's efforts to reunite Alexis with her biological mother. The Stuths were flagged as meddlers - grandparents on a power trip who were more interested in keeping the child than allowing their daughter to have a chance to parent Alexis again. State social workers took the baby from the Stuths’ home and placed her in foster care with a stranger.
In 2008 a KING 5 Investigators series exposed how the state and a judge didn’t follow the law by giving priority in placing the child with relatives.
“I’ve never seen people so hell bent on destroying one family,” said Ann-Marie Stuth in 2008. “Nobody could explain to you how unjust and unkind a system can be.”
In 2009 a different judge ruled that the state had made an error in not giving more weight to the placement with relatives. Alexis was put back in her grandparent’s home after nearly two years of being separated. The Stuths have now formally adopted Alexis.
An assistant attorney-general who represents DSHS in the civil lawsuit told the jury his client was carrying out a legal obligation to make every attempt to re-unify the child with her biological mother. In his opening statement, Jon Morrone said the grandparents hindered that process.
"We've created a society where we help children reunify with their parents. DSHS helps to remove obstacles and barriers in order to help reunification occur," said Morrone.
The attorney for the Stuths told the jury they are asking them to award $2.6 million to Alexis Stuth for the emotional distress suffered by the child and for her future care, including private school for special needs children, therapy, and case management.
Earlier efforts to settle the case before trial were unsuccessful.
Alexis' biological mother, who is now 23, is still in contact with the family.