The former foster parents of a Vancouver girl who was taken from their care by the Washington Department of Social and Health Services and placed with her biological father — a convicted child rapist who then sexually abused her for years — have settled a lawsuit against the agency for $3.1 million.
Records filed in Clark County Superior Court show that the Vancouver couple and DSHS reached the settlement last month.
The foster parents, who have since adopted the girl, say all of the money will go toward her care, with court oversight.
“I think it will help her for the rest of her life,” her adoptive father said in a phone interview Thursday. “She can get the therapy she needs, and we don’t have to worry about state funding.”
The girl, who is now 10, has shown some improvement since being returned to the couple, her adoptive father said, “but we still have a long ways to go,” he added.
The couple’s attorney, Darrell Cochran of Pfau Cochran Vertetis Amala PLLC in Tacoma, described the case as “one of the more mind-numbing social work decisions that I’ve ever come across.”
“The idea that you can put a baby girl with a convicted child rapist and hope that it works out well really defies all sensibilities,” Cochran said in a phone interview. “It’s an insane decision from the get-go. Being a child rapist is a personality disorder that lasts a lifetime and threatens every child in your grasp.”
The couple took the girl home when she was just days old and intended to adopt her.
Her biological mother suffered from substance abuse issues. The girl was born about a month premature and tested positive for methamphetamine, court records state. Her father, Randall Abel, was convicted in 1995 of second-degree rape of a child in Thurston County.
But despite concerns reportedly shared by the girl’s then-foster mother, a biological aunt and the Clark County Court Appointed Special Advocates Program, the girl was reunited with Abel, a registered sex offender, in 2009 when she was nearly 2 years old, the suit states. She remained in his custody until just before her 6th birthday.
Prior to her permanent placement with Abel, DSHS had granted him supervised and unsupervised visits. However, in August 2008, Clark County CASA stopped by Abel’s home during one of the visits and discovered it was not being supervised, according to the couple’s lawsuit.
Not long after the visits started in Abel’s home, the girl began pulling out her hair. And in October 2008, Clark County CASA submitted a review hearing report detailing a number of concerns about Abel’s visits, the lawsuit states.
By March 2009, the girl was taken from her foster family, against their objections, and placed with Abel full time.
“It felt like a piece of us was taken away,” her adoptive father said.
He said the girl’s social worker failed to present documentation — including recommendations from family members and concerns from Abel’s counselor — to the judge that would have surely prevented her from being returned to her biological father.
Clark County Sheriff’s Office investigators received information in June 2013 that the girl told children on her school bus that her biological father sexually abused her. She was removed from his care days later.
Abel entered guilty pleas in Clark County Superior Court to second-degree child molestation, communicating with a minor for immoral purposes and two counts of fourth-degree assault in January 2015. He was sentenced to 17 years in prison.
Her adoptive father said he learned of the abuse through the girl’s biological mother on social media.
“Honestly, it wasn’t really surprising. It was heartbreaking, but the warning signs were all there; they were just all ignored,” he said.
The couple contacted DSHS afterward and told the agency they wanted the girl placed back in their care. It took some time, but they were finally reunited.
“Ultimately, I think the state needs to fund DSHS better,” the girl’s adoptive father said. “We were foster parents for (nearly 10 years). While fostering, we saw how crazy busy the system is. They need more social workers to help review cases.
“Their mandate is to reunite kids with their parents, but their main mandate should be keeping children safe,” he added.
The couple’s lawsuit initially sought $9 million in damages, according to DSHS.
“We believe this settlement provides the means for this child to get the care she will need to recover from this traumatic time in her life,” Connie Lambert-Eckel, acting assistant secretary for DSHS’s Children’s Administration, said in a written statement.
Although they felt they could win a greater jury verdict, Cochran said taking the settlement was the “right decision at this point.”
“It would take years for (the suit) to come to completion, and we wanted to make sure that we got (the girl) help more quickly,” he said. “This settlement amount allows us to get her help that is desperately needed.”
When asked how DSHS will prevent similar horrific situations from happening in the future, Norah West, a DSHS spokeswoman, said, “We are continually reviewing our procedures and policies to ensure the safety of the children in our care.”
The girl’s adoptive father said he feels like DSHS is trying to “dodge responsibility.”
“They aren’t going to admit they are guilty. I mean, that’s frustrating to me,” he said.