Report links rash of abuse, state adoption policy flaws

Committee reviewed 15 cases, including at least one in Clark County

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

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Severe abuse of adopted children report

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A new state report blames shortcomings in state policy for a recent rash of severe abuse of adopted children, including lack of oversight of private adoption agencies, inadequate safety nets for catching potential abuse, and urgency to place the state's displaced and orphaned children in permanent homes.

The report, released Monday by the Severe Abuse of Adopted Children Committee, recommends a list of changes to improve the state's adoption system and protect children.

Twenty-eight committee members from the public and private adoption and child welfare fields reviewed 15 cases of severe abuse and neglect of adopted children, including at least one in Clark County. The abuse occurred between 2009 and 2011.

They examined gaps in the state system and looked at best practices to come up with the recommendations. Among the proposed changes:

• Enact regulations to provide oversight of private adoption;

• Track failed adoptions, primarily when a child is returned to the state;

• Increase required qualifications for social workers who evaluate the suitability of a home;

• Enhance minimum requirements for home evaluation before and after an adoption is finalized; and

• Establish an internal panel to make adoption decisions for children in state care.

Some of the changes would require action by the state Legislature. Others, such as the internal work group, are already under way, said Denise Revels Robinson, assistant secretary of the state Children's Administration.

The report was spurred by the Office of the Family and Children's Ombudsman 2011 Annual Report, which documented an "alarming cluster of cases of severe child abuse and neglect" in adoptive homes.

In 2011 alone, there were 11 confirmed cases of severe abuse of adopted children around the state. One case resulted in the death of 13-year-old Hana Williams.

At least one of the 11 cases was in Clark County: The 16-year-old Weller twins were allegedly imprisoned, deprived of food and beaten by their adoptive parents in their North Hearthwood home in Vancouver. That case couldn't be linked to any shortcomings in the state's adoption system because the twins were adopted in California. Sandra and Jeffrey Weller's criminal trial is set for Feb. 4.

However there were some similarities between the Wellers and the fatal case involving Hana Williams. Both were private adoptions. The twins were adopted from the Philippines. Larry and Carri Williams of Sedro-Woolley adopted Hana from Ethiopia in 2008. Both cases involved allegations of imprisonment in small, substandard living spaces, food deprivation and physical abuse. Hana died of hypothermia May 12, 2011, after she was allegedly forced to stay outside in the dark in temperatures of about 40 degrees. She had lost 30 pounds in the year before her death. An autopsy found malnutrition and a stomach infection contributed to her death.

Lack of oversight

Private adoptions lack the oversight that state adoptions have, said Chris Case, a spokeswoman with the state Department of Social and Health Services.

State law requires that the state or an adoption agency do what's known as a home study prior to an adoption. Ideally, the home study gives a social worker a sense of a family's everyday life and helps determine whether the prospective parents are suitable. In state adoptions, social workers also do a post-placement assessment, again to ensure the child is in a safe and healthy environment, after an adoption is finalized. That doesn't always happen in private adoptions.

The Williamses underwent a home study prior to adopting Hana but would not cooperate with attempts by the adoption agency to complete a post-placement assessment, according to the committee's report.

Unlike Oregon, Washington doesn't have rules that comply with international guidelines known as The Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Cooperation in Respect to Intercountry Adoption. The Hague Convention helps protect adopted children by laying out measures and protections required in each phase of the adoption process. Washington's laws regulating private (and international) adoption address "minimum requirements for adoption home studies and post-placement reports in a cursory manner," the report stated.

As a private entity, the adoption agency would have little clout to force parents to submit to the post-placement assessment, and private agencies' protocol for post-adoption follow-up is inconsistent.

Private adoption agencies also do not uniformly require the same training and qualifications as the state does for its social workers who do home studies.

"The fatal abuse suffered by this child raised questions about whether there were red flags that might have been identified through increased state oversight of child-placing agencies or enhanced requirements for adoption home studies and post-placement services and reports," the committee's report stated.

The committee concluded that increasing the required qualification for all social workers who do home studies could help safeguard against abuse. Providing a rubric of required home-study questions could help unearth red flags. For instance, what is the prospective parents' motivation for adoption? The answer to that simple question could provide crucial insight into whether the home is suitable, but some social workers weren't asking it, said Mary Meinig, director of the Office of the Family & Children Ombudsman.

The committee also advocated for an internal panel to make adoption decisions for children in state care. Currently, the social worker and his or her supervisor make the decision about whether to approve an adoption. Having a panel and multiple perspectives could help catch warning signs that a home may be unsafe, Meinig said.

About 8,703 Washington children are either in foster care, are waiting for adoption, or both, according to the Children's Administration. The urgency to give them a permanent home, though with good intentions, may contribute to placement of children or keeping children in unsuitable homes, said Meinig, who read numerous home study reports. In some cases, red flags, even when raised, are ignored.

"In one home study, we had a reference where the person said, 'No, this (applicant) shouldn't not be adopting a child,'" Meinig said. "The home study person went back to the (applicant) and said, 'This reference wasn't positive. Do you have anyone else?'"

The committee also recommended improving training and preparations for prospective adoptive parents, such as allowing prospective parents to see a child's full file before adoption, minimum training requirements for all adoption agency staff, and providing more support services for adoptive families. The Children's Administration is working with Seattle's Casey Family Programs to explore ways to better support adoptive families.

There were about 1,862 state adoptions in 2011, according to the Children's Administration, Case said. The state doesn't track the number of private adoptions, she said.


Paris Achen: 360-735-4551; http://twitter.com/Col_Trends; http://facebook.com/ColTrends; paris.achen@columbian.com.