Abused children file $54 million claim against DSHS

Lawyer: State failed to act on reports about Wellers

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

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Five children who were abused by their parents in Vancouver have filed a $54 million claim against the state that alleges a failure to adequately respond to at least 26 separate complaints about their welfare over an eight-year period.

Sandra and Jeffrey Weller of Vancouver each were sentenced March 20 by Clark County Superior Court Judge Barbara Johnson to two decades in prison for imprisoning, starving and beating their adopted twins. A Clark County jury found Sandra Weller guilty of nine separate counts related to the twins' abuse; Jeffrey Weller was found guilty of 13, related to both the twins' abuse and assaults against his biological children.

"DSHS (the Department of Social and Health Services) received multiple warnings from a variety of sources that these kids were being victimized in the home," said David Moody, the children's Seattle attorney. He added, "the warnings were clear and unrelenting for years and years. DSHS completely botched its job."

Chris Case, a DSHS spokeswoman, said she was not authorized to comment on the children's claim. The agency has a policy of not commenting on pending litigation, she said.

DSHS removed the children from the Weller home Oct. 7, 2011, after one of the twins left a note about their abuse at her therapist's office.

The claim reads "by all appearances, it seemed to be a typical suburban home. … However, the facade crumbled as soon as the social workers ventured beyond the front rooms and discovered the horrors within."

The claim requests no less than $15 million for each twin and $8 million for each of the three biological children.

The criminal charges were for acts of abuse over 12 months prior to the children's removal from the home, but the abuse lasted much longer than that, Moody said.

Complaints ignored?

For eight years, the tort claim alleges, the state Department of Social and Health Services either ignored or failed to fully investigate complaints about the children's welfare.

The complaints to DSHS began in November 2003 when someone expressed concern that the Weller children had poor hygiene, smelled badly and were allowed to bathe only twice a week in cold water, the claim says. The male twin, 8 at the time, allegedly was forced to wear one diaper all day at school. DSHS accepted the complaint for an investigation but did not forward it to law enforcement, the claim says.

"DSHS has a duty every single time to not just do a thorough investigation of allegations of neglect or abuse but also to involve law enforcement, and they didn't," Moody said.

DSHS also never looked in Sandra Weller's past record with Child Protective Services in California, the claim says.

DSHS took another complaint as "information only" in April 2004 when Sandra Weller allegedly told the female twin that "if I had a knife right now, you would be gone," the claims says. The complaint was not referred to law enforcement.

In September 2004, someone reported to DSHS that Sandra Weller was "withholding food as punishment of her 9-year-old twins" and that the children "are always hungry," the claim says. The reporting party also complained that Sandra Weller locked the food cabinets and locked the twins in their room with an alarm on it. DSHS investigated the complaint but didn't report it to law enforcement, the claim says. The agency determined that the allegations were unfounded and concluded that the allegations came from a disgruntled party in a child custody battle with one of the Wellers.

'Pulling their hair out'

Another complaint stated that the twins were stressed by the abuse that they were "literally pulling their hair out," the claim says.

A social worker who visited the Weller home in January 2006 noted locks on the twins' closet and bedroom door, the claim says. The bedroom had a foul odor and had pieces of carpeting scattered on the floor. The social worker said the female twin was bald and had no eyebrows or eyelashes. She was 10 years old at the time and talked a like a 2-year-old, the social worker reported. The next day, however, DSHS closed the case. Despite numerous prior complaints and the fact that the twins were "thin and frail," DSHS concluded that while Sandra Weller appeared to be emotionally abusive, it perhaps didn't warrant court intervention, the claim says.

DSHS also received concerned calls from several teachers who interacted with the twins. They reported suspected malnutrition, irregular attendance, hair loss and reports of locks on the twins' bedroom door.

A March 26 assessment by DSHS noted that the parents had placed locks on the food storage areas and alarms on the twins' bedroom. The assessment stated that the twins had missing hair and were thin for their ages and that there were concerns about malnutrition. Nevertheless, DSHS determined the allegations against the Wellers were inconclusive, the claim says.

Beatings claimed

According to court records, Jeffrey Weller regularly beat the twins with a 42-inch-long piece of scrap lumber. Police investigators found it was stained with blood. The twins also were kept in their room for about 22 hours out of the day.

The male twin had a broken arm from one of Jeffrey Weller's assaults against him. The arm had healed without the bone being properly set.

"This eclipses the worst social work I've ever seen," said Moody, who has sued DSHS for other instances of abuse.

After the children were removed from the Weller home in October 2011, DSHS finally obtained the CPS records on Sandra Weller from California and found reports of chronic physical abuse, corporal punishment, malnutrition and food deprivation, the claim says. The twins were taken into protective custody by law enforcement in California, and authorities revoked Sandra Weller's foster care license, the claim says. It's unclear how Sandra Weller was ultimately allowed to adopt the twins.

The children in the suit are the adopted twins, a boy and girl, now 18, and three biological sons, 16, 14 and 12. The two eldest biological children came from Jeffrey Weller's previous marriage. The 12-year-old is from Sandra Weller's previous marriage.

The tort claim was filed Wednesday in Olympia, Moody said. A tort claim places the agency on notice that a lawsuit will be filed within 60 days. Moody said he expects to file the lawsuit in mid- to late February in Clark County Superior Court.