State to pay record settlement in child abuse case

$9.75 million settlement in Vancouver child neglect suit.

A judgment filed today with the Clark County Superior Court outlines a record-setting settlement reached between the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) and five siblings who were beaten and starved for nearly a decade inside their Vancouver home at the hands of their parents.

The state of Washington will pay the children a total of $9.75 million to settle a lawsuit filed on behalf of the children in 2013. The suit alleged that DSHS social workers and their supervisors did not follow state policy or law when they received dozens of warnings that the children (now between the ages of 13 and 19) were in harm's way.

"I think the taxpayers should be upset when they hear a number like this ($9.75 million). The state is paying this amount because these kids deserve it. But the question is, how did we get to this point? There are caseworkers here who just simply aren't doing their jobs. And if the state is allowed to just cover up these things by paying off settlements, DSHS is never going to learn," said plaintiff's attorney David P. Moody.

The parents -- Sandra and Jeff Weller -- were sentenced last March to 20 years in prison each after being found guilty of 14 counts of abuse. Clark County Superior Court Judge Barbara Johnson, citing the severity of the crimes, leveled prison sentences that were double the standard penalty.

During the Wellers' trial, the couple's oldest son, now 19, testified that his father beat the children with a long, blood-stained board at the direction of Sandra Weller.

State records cited in the children's claim show that the DSHS office in Vancouver received more than 80 warnings about their abuse and neglect over an eight-year period, yet social workers did little to nothing to investigate.

The public tips to CPS, known as referrals, were either taken as information only, or when they were investigated, the social workers deemed them unfounded or inconclusive. At no point did CPS employees forward the allegations of abuse and neglect to local law enforcement.

"Time and time again they received the warnings and simply entered a passage in the computer and went home for the day, nothing was done," said Moody.

In a statement to KING 5, DSHS said it "settled this case because the standard of practice did not rise to the level needed to protect these children from harm."

The agency noted that the "abuse in this case occurred prior to October 2011, and our practice has improved significantly since then. We take lessons learned from cases such as this to make better decisions when we respond to child safety concerns." (Read the full statement below.)

Warnings received by state

Records show that Child Protective Services in Vancouver began receiving tips about the Weller children's treatment in 2003 -- 8 years before any action was taken. Here is a sample of the referrals based on available records:

* 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% convinced" 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.

Secret note

On October 4, 2011, the oldest daughter, 16 at the time, took the step that led to the children's rescue. She left a scribbled note in her counselor's office begging for help.

She wrote, "I need you to call CPS. ... Me and (my brother) are being beat with a board about three and a half feet long. ... (Our parents) have promised (the board) to us after we leave your office because our room in not clean. ... PLEASE HELP!!"

Two days later CPS and police officers went to the home, a typical-looking house on a quiet cul-de-sac. There, they found signs everywhere of abuse and starvation:

* 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.

Attorneys for the children say each of them is incredibly damaged by the abuse they suffered or were forced to watch. The settlement money is to be used for therapy and other resources to help them recover from the years of trauma. The children are currently living with different relatives or living on their own with the support of family and friends.

Full statement from DSHS

The Department of Social and Health Services settled this case because the standard of practice did not rise to the level needed to protect these children from harm. They were subjected to horrific criminal abuse at the hands of their parents, who are serving lengthy prison sentences.

The abuse in this case occurred prior to October 2011, and our practice has improved significantly since then. We take lessons learned from cases such as this to make better decisions when we respond to child safety concerns.

In an average year, Child Protective Services receives about 100,000 calls reporting suspected abuse and neglect, resulting in about 50,000 investigations. We strive each day to achieve the best possible outcomes for children. Since this case, DSHS has processed nearly 400,000 intake calls, resulting in more than 160,000 investigations, despite smaller budgets over the past seven years.

Gov. Jay Inslee expects, as do we, new policies and programs, such as Family Assessment Response (which works with families to build on strengths they need to keep their children safe) will reduce risks to, and better protect, children.

Further, DSHS settles cases at levels that will help the children build better lives through treatment, education and other future needs; not to compensate them for the agonies caused by the perpetrators, in this case, the parents who harmed their children.


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