VANCOUVER -- The Vancouver children who were starved, beaten and locked up by their parents should have been rescued years earlier but state child protective services ignored repeated warnings from multiple sources, according to a lawsuit filed in Washington state against the agency.
Attorneys on Wednesday filed a multi-million-dollar claim against the state of Washington on behalf of five Vancouver children who were abused by their parents over the course of nearly a decade.
The parents -- Sandra and Jeff Weller -- were sentenced in March 2013 to 20 years in prison each after being found guilty of 14 counts of abuse. Clark County Superior Court Judge Barbara Johnson leveled the exceptional prison sentences, double the standard, citing the severity of the crimes.
But the claim filed Wednesday on behalf of the children, now between the ages of 12 and 18, says the Washington Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) should be held accountable as well.
During the Wellers' trial early this year, the couple's oldest son, now 18, testified that his father beat the children with a long, blood-stained board at the direction of Sandra Weller.
“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.”
At the Wellers' sentencing, Judge Johnson called the parents' behavior “incomprehensible."
“Those who should be the most loving and caring of each other have been the most abusive and the (exceptional) sentence is appropriate," Johnson said.
State records cited by the attorneys in the claim show that the DSHS office in Vancouver received at least 26 warnings about abuse and neglect of the children over an 8-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.
“DSHS not only ignored the warnings, it broke the law,” said plaintiffs' attorney David P. Moody. “DSHS does not have discretion, it must call law enforcement. It was a monumental failure not to call law enforcement. It’s not something that should be done. It’s something that must be done. It’s the law.”
The claim filed Wednesday puts the state on notice that a lawsuit will be filed in 60 days if the government doesn’t respond.
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 list 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% 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."
“They (state workers) 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,” said attorney Ian Bauer.
A DSHS spokesperson said the department cannot comment on pending litigation.
On October 4, 2011, the oldest daughter, 16-years-old 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.
KING 5 showed the CPS records and legal documents to Katherine Kent -- a family law attorney, a King County Commissioner pro-tem, and a former CPS social worker. Kent said DSHS “usually gets it right," but this case appears to be a failure by the agency obligated to investigate every allegation of abuse and neglect. Kent said of particular concern were the number of different types of people who called the state.
"The school, people in the community, people who have regular contact with the children - it wasn't a singular source, and so that was also concerning and elevates how a referral should be handled," said Kent.
"This is a systemic failure from top to bottom. This is the worst case I've seen. It's the best example of the worst social work I've ever seen," said Moody.
The children are currently in homes in Washington, Colorado and California. Four live with relatives and one is in a foster home. Only two of the children live together.
The tort claims filed on their behalf Wednesday ask for $15 million each for the 18-year-old twins and $8 million each for the 12, 14, and 15-year-olds. If the state doesn't respond within 60 days, the plaintiffs' attorneys will file a lawsuit against the state seeking damages.
Tort claims are filed with the State Department of Enterprise Services. The process is explained on the department’s website:
“ORM objectively determines the state's liability for claimed injuries. It fairly compensates claimants for damages when liability is supported by evidence and denies claims when liability is unsupported. ORM recognizes its stewardship role in protecting state resources by striving for efficient and timely service to citizens. Approved claims are paid out of the Self-Insurance Liability Program (SILP), which is funded by state agencies."