Oregon’s child welfare agency has agreed to pay $7 million to settle a lawsuit filed on behalf of two children who were nearly starved to death by foster parents the state approved for them.
The settlement is among Oregon’s largest for wrongdoing by a state agency but short of the record, a $15 million settlement by the Department of Human Services in 2015. That lawsuit was filed on behalf of nine infants and toddlers abused by a Salem foster father.
The department declined to release any information about the settlement, reached in December, with the young sister and brother, citing the ongoing lawsuit against other parties to the case. The Oregonian/OregonLive documented the settlement using court records filed as part of other legal matters regarding the children.
The Yamhill County foster parents who for years withheld food from the two preschoolers and subjected them to other abuse, John and Danielle Yates, are each serving 2 ½ years in prison.
Foster parents who starved preschoolers get 2 1/2 years in prison
The children were 4 and 5 when they were found to weigh the same as they had when they were 1 and 2 — just 27 and 30 pounds. The sister and brother were placed in the Yateses’ home in May 2012, and medical records show their weights and heights began to drop as a percentile of what was normal for their age that same year. They were starved so severely by their foster parents that by 2014 their weights weren’t listed on growth charts for children their age.
$60 million lawsuit: 2 preschoolers endured extreme starvation on Oregon’s watch
They still have an active lawsuit that alleges negligence by a pediatrician and his medical center and a network of federally funded health centers. The children were seen at the health centers by nutritionists with the Women, Infants and Children program more than a dozen times during the period when they were starved and abused.
Although the health care workers noted the preschoolers’ low weights, short heights, developmental delays and other medical concerns, they failed to determine the causes of the health problems, their lawsuit alleges. The health workers also failed to file abuse reports that are mandatory under state law, according to a court record.
A lawyer who was supposed to look out for the brother and sister’s interests also agreed to a $300,000 settlement to avoid being included in the lawsuit.
The foster parents agreed to pay $100,000 – the proceeds from selling their home, according to court records. John Yates and Danielle Yates also each had to pay the children a fine of $4,250.
According to the lawsuit, caseworkers and their supervisors ignored complaints and obvious problems during the 2 1/2 years the children lived with the couple. A state review of the case found that a caseworker saw the emaciated children less than a month before doctors at Randall Children’s Hospital determined they suffered from chronic starvation. But the caseworker did nothing. At Randall, the lawsuit says, doctors found the children resembled victims of a famine: their ribs visible, their bellies protruding and their brain development severely affected.
Although the long-term consequences are difficult to predict, the children’s lawyer wrote that they will likely continue to experience delayed physical and mental growth and even regression because the abuse occurred during critical periods of development. Medical professionals expect the children could suffer emotional, behavioral and physical problems, including musculoskeletal disorders that would require “extensive orthopedic intervention and treatment,” according to court records. Both have required extensive counseling to address food hoarding, trust issues and other emotional scars from years of mistreatment.
The state human services department agreed to pay the pair $3.5 million each. Only one foster child has received a higher payment from the state: Stephanie Kuntupis. She was 2 when her Gresham foster father shook her so violently that he blinded her in one eye and caused irreversible brain damage. The state agreed to pay her $3.75 million.
In the past year, the state human services department also agreed to pay $750,000 and the city of Seaside’s insurance company $250,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by the estate of a 2-year-old killed three years ago. The Oregonian/OregonLive documented that October settlement using court files in other matters regarding the toddler and his older brother, who survived.
The lawsuit alleged that child welfare workers and a Seaside police officer failed to adequately intervene in the years, months and weeks before 2-year-old Coltin Salsbury died on March 6, 2014, after his mother’s boyfriend threw him headfirst into a toilet in a Portland motel room.
The starving brother and sister’s condition was only discovered after the Yateses told the state they could no longer care for them and returned the children to their aunt. Now ages 8 and 6, they live with foster parents who have cared for them since January 2016, court records indicate. The long-term impacts of the abuse on their mental and physical health could make it difficult for them to work in the future, court filings say, and the settlement money will be placed in special needs trusts to help pay for their care and living expenses.
The state plans to return the brother and sister to live with their biological father in October if he “is able to resume care for his children at that time,” according to a court document. Their current foster parents have also expressed a desire to adopt them.
If they go to live with their father, money from the siblings’ trusts could to be used in part to purchase a house, court records say. Otherwise, the court-appointed conservator who looks out for them wrote, it’s unlikely the father could lease or purchase a home to provide the stability they need.
The children’s court-appointed lawyer, Jennelle Johnson, was tasked with representing their interests as foster children in juvenile court from January 2011 until the Yates became their guardians in August 2013. A privately hired lawyer representing the children said in court filings that Johnson genuinely cared for the children. Johnson’s insurance policy, provided through the Oregon State Bar, agreed to pay the children $300,000 before they filed a lawsuit against her.
The children’s lawyers noted that although they would have a strong case against her, it was different from past examples of legal negligence by attorneys for foster children because Johnson met regularly with her clients. She visited the preschoolers in their foster homes, was a vocal advocate for them in court and her “genuine affection for the children and devastation over what happened to them in the Yates’ home would be apparent to a jury.”
Johnson declined to comment.
Each child was represented by an attorney in the years-long civil suit against the Department of Human Resources, Johnson and the medical workers, plus a complex series of other legal matters stemming from their time in foster care. Each of those two lawyers will receive $1.2 million in legal fees from the settlements, court records show.
At least one top human services official originally named in the lawsuit, then-Department of Human Services director Clyde Saiki, is on his way out after less than two years at the helm.
Saiki took over in 2015, after the director during the time the siblings were starved and abused, Erinn Kelley Siel, was allowed to resign. At the time, the agency was dealing with the scandal over abuse and neglect at a Portland foster care provider. Kelley-Siel and other top officials continued to send children to the foster agency even though they were aware it had serious problems.
Saiki, who will retire this month, struggled to improve the agency’s child welfare division. He fired the top two child welfare administrators, child welfare director Lois Day and chief operating officer Jerry Waybrant, hours after the lawsuit was filed in early 2016. Saiki explained in a note to lawmakers that he acted “after reviewing the case and based on my assessment of our child welfare program.”
But Day’s replacement, Lena Alhusseini, resigned in May after less than a year on the job and acknowledged she had been unable to achieve crucial improvements in child welfare. Alhusseini’s resignation followed the revelation by The Oregonian/OregonLive of a state report that state social workers left children in unsafe homes nearly half the time. Around the same time, she made the final call to remove a 4-year-old foster child from her aunt and uncle’s care to reunite her with a toddler brother she’d never met.
One key state employee has held onto her job, however: the manager of the caseworkers who failed to keep the preschoolers safe, Shirley Vollmuller. Vollmuller was named along with Saiki in the children’s lawsuit, but she still works for the state. Vollmuller, who as a manager is not represented by a union, also supervised caseworkers responsible for a preschool-age brother and sister who were physically abused and starved by their foster parents in Clackamas County from 2002 to 2004. The state settled lawsuits filed on behalf of those children for a total of $3.5 million.
Andrea Cantu-Schomus, a spokeswoman for the human services agency, declined to respond to questions Friday about why Vollmuller still works for the agency and whether any other employees who failed to keep the two children safe have been disciplined.
— Hillary Borrud