Lawsuit filed over boy's death in Arlington foster home fire (Texas)

 Child's mother alleges failures by state, caretakers

 By Diana Hefley, Herald Writer

 ARLINGTON -- The mother of a boy who died in a 2008 house fire is suing the state and the foster parents who were caring for her son at the time of the fire, which killed two boys.

Lonnie Opstrup alleges that the state Department of Social and Health Services and Compass Health failed to adequately monitor and train foster parents Mark and Susan Lee. Her lawsuit also alleges that the Lees failed to maintain a safe home for the foster children living with them.

Kyler Opstrup-Williams, 11, and a second foster child, Tyler Emory, 10, were killed in a fast-moving blaze that ravaged the Arlington home on Nov. 21, 2008.

A third foster boy, then 10, admitted to accidentally setting the fire. He told investigators that he used a lighter to start small fires in the sheets he'd arranged into a fort. The flames got out of control.

Everett attorney Deane Minor filed the wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of Lonnie Opstrup earlier this month in Snohomish County Superior Court.

A number of the allegations mirror findings from a December 2010 state review of the circumstances at the home in 2008. That review didn't find fault with the Lees or uncover any licensing violations. Instead, the committee concluded that there were areas that could be improved.

The lawsuit, on the other hand, alleges that the number of children with special needs and the size and layout of the house prevented the Lees from adequately caring for the foster children under their charge. Opstrup also faults the Lees for not removing her son from his bedroom once they discovered the fire.

The boys were among five foster children living with the Lees.

The Lees' adult daughter, who was home from college, heard a smoke detector and began waking up the children.

Mark Lee heard the smoke detector from his room in the basement. He went upstairs to find his daughter helping the children escape. He went into Kyler's bedroom.

Mark Lee shook the sleeping boy to wake him. He told investigators he heard Kyler make a noise and thought he was awake and following him out of the room. Once downstairs he realized Kyler wasn't following him. He tried to return upstairs but smoke and flames kept him back.

He was forced outside and then realized that Tyler also was missing. The house was engulfed in flames and Lee couldn't get close enough to reach Tyler's room.

The boys' rooms were in the northwest corner of the house. Both died of asphyxiation.

The child who started the fire was charged with a felony in juvenile court in connection with the deaths. A judge in January granted him a deferred prosecution and ordered him to continue counseling and do community service. He was reunited with his father and moved out of state.

Kyler had been foster care since 2002, according to state records. He'd lived with the Lees for about three years.

The Lees have been mourning the loss of the boys since their deaths, Martin Van Leuven, a family spokesman said Tuesday.

"They treated the kids like they were their own," Van Leuven said. "This has been super hard on them."

The Lees declined to comment about the allegations outlined in the lawsuit.

Officials with the DSHS also declined on Tuesday to make any comments about the lawsuit.

"It's just a sad thing. We'll let the judicial process take place. Nothing is going to bring the child back," DSHS Senior Director Thomas Shapely said Tuesday.

The state Department of Social and Health Services conducted a fatality review in April 2009. A review is conducted when a child dies unexpectedly while under state care or while receiving state services.

That review found there were no licensing violations or negligence on the Lees' part.

The couple had been licensed foster parents since May 2001. They were licensed through Compass Health to care for children with behavioral and mental health issues.

The state stopped sending children to the Lees in March. They are no longer licensed foster parents, said Sherry Hill, a spokeswoman for the Children's Administration, an arm of DSHS.

The 2009 review's only conclusion was that there was inadequate communication and coordination among the different agencies involved with the boys. That potentially affected getting timely services to those affected by the fire.

State officials, however, later decided that they wanted a second look at the circumstances of the Lees' home at the time of the blaze.

Former foster parents who had cared for one of the victims questioned the first review findings and urged the state ombudsman for family and children to press for answers.

The second review was done in December 2010 by a committee that included state child advocates, an Edmonds police detective and a Monroe Fire Department captain.

The review again concluded that the Lees violated no state regulations nor had they committed any licensing infractions. The committee, however, did see room for improvements. They found that there likely weren't enough smoke alarms in the home, and that fire drills may not have sufficiently prepared the Lees and the children. The review also concluded that the sleeping arrangements likely weren't ideal given the number of children with special needs living in the home.

The Lees' bedroom was equipped with an audio monitor and located in the basement. The foster children's bedrooms were located on the second and third floors of the home.

The committee also determined that it was the collective responsibility of all the professionals who regularly visited the family home to be alert for potential safety issues.

The review concluded that at the time of the fire, the home likely was becoming a place that would require more supervision and safety inspections because the majority of the children had special needs.

The committee made several recommendations, including more in-depth fire safety training for caregivers overseeing children under state supervision.

"It was a terrible tragedy to have a child lose his life in a fire," Shapely said Tuesday. "Anytime something bad happens to children we've had contact with we always take it to heart."