In July 1996, two 9-year-old twin sisters and their 7-year-old brother were removed from the abusive home of their biological mother and placed in foster care.
Making the decision to remove a child from a family is among the most complicated, controversial and difficult choices that the government can make. Under Washington state law, child-welfare workers can file a “dependency” petition when a child is being abused or neglected; the children are removed and the circumstances investigated. Usually, the problems in the home are addressed and the children return. The goal is to keep families together.
In extreme cases, the child may be placed with a guardian or foster family; in the rarest instances, a biological parent’s rights will be terminated and the child can be adopted.
Unsurprisingly, the process is often controversial and greeted with resistance, particularly in the most rural reaches of the state. Edith Vance, the same social worker charged with helping the three children in 1996, was attacked in 2005 by a father wielding a machete during a child welfare check.
In the earlier case, the children were removed from the rural Stevens County home of their biological mother following years of concerns over abuse and neglect. They were placed in the newly licensed Chewelah foster home of Michael and Sylvia Wenger. The Wengers had a spotty record; they were licensed in December 1995 and given the care of a toddler. Within just a few months, though, the child was removed when state workers learned that Sylvia Wenger had made “material omissions” in her application to be a foster mother – including failing to detail the criminal and violent activities of herself and her family.
The children’s social worker recommended the Wengers not be licensed as foster parents. A supervisor overruled that recommendation, and soon thereafter, the twin sisters and their brother were moved into the couple’s care. In January 1997, a 15-month-old boy was also placed with the Wengers.
What happened to the four children in the Wenger home became simply an extension – a deepening – of the horrors they’d already endured. The children say in court records that they were regularly struck with boards, wooden spoons, belts and other objects. They say they were forced to stand in a corner for hours, locked into closets and force-fed for punishment. They were home-schooled and had little contact with the outside world.
And Michael Wenger molested the girls. Beginning when his wife was pregnant with their first biological child in 1997, he molested the twin girls regularly.
The three older children say they told Vance, the social worker, about the abuse repeatedly – on several specific occasions, according to their lawsuit, in 1997 and 1998. The biological mother of the youngest child says she reported suspicions that her son was being sexually abused in the Wenger home to state officials in 1997.
Vance has flatly denied being told of the abuse. In a sworn statement to the court, Vance details several reports and interviews she had with the family, as well as consultations with a therapist who treated the kids: “At no time” did they tell her they were being abused or neglected, she said. “To the contrary, by all indications available to me, the children thrived in the Wenger home.”
In 1998, the Wengers, with the assistance and approval of the Department of Social and Health Services, adopted the children.
The abuse went on for five years, the children say. In 2001, one of the girls ran away. She fled to a former foster house and told them what was happening. CPS removed her from the house and opened an investigation. While the monthlong investigation proceeded, the three other children remained in the Wenger home, where the abuse allegedly continued.
The kids were finally removed and placed into other foster families. Michael Wenger was convicted of child molestation and served seven years in prison; he is now listed as a level 2 sex offender.
The children filed a lawsuit against the state, Vance and others in 2011. The twin girls are now 25; one lives in Spokane County and one in Pierce County. Their brother is 23 and living in Snohomish County. The youngest child is 17.
All of them suffer dramatic, long-term effects from the abuse, according to psychological evaluations, ranging from depression to anxiety to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. One is described as “chronically suicidal.” One doctor said that the youngest child’s extreme inability to control his sexual impulses – the likely result of being sexualized at an early age – as well as other severe problems with social interaction make it unlikely that he will ever live independently as an adult.
The crux of the lawsuit – and the state’s liability – rested on the decision made in 1995 to license the Wengers. It is easy to view such decisions in hindsight as much simpler and more clear-cut than they really are.
And yet it is hard to picture how the Wengers presented a close call as potential foster parents, from the origins of their relationship – 21-year-old Michael dating 14-year-old Sylvia – to Sylvia Wenger’s dishonesty on her application to the issues raised in her psychological evaluation. You might be reluctant to hire someone like that to manage the till at a concession stand.
The weakness of the state’s position on this question was exemplified by a document state attorneys filed early in the case.
Referring to the psychologist’s report on Sylvia Wenger, they wrote, “The evaluation provided a less-than-flattering depiction of Ms. Wenger, but the involved psychologist opined in relevant part that ‘Many people who provide good and adequate parenting and foster parenting show personality difficulties even more serious than those found in Sylvia Wenger.’ ”
Unsurprisingly, the state did not dedicate itself to this argument. It settled the case for $5.3 million Oct. 1.
In announcing the settlement, the DSHS pointed to a long list of improvements it has made in the licensing and oversight of foster families.
These include an expanded, more rigorous process of background checks and evaluating applicants, as well as more frequent visits by social workers once children are placed in homes. At each stage, more people are involved in the decision-making.
The plaintiffs’ attorney, Allen Ressler, said he’s not sure whether all the problems apparent in this case have been sufficiently addressed. He continues to take on cases with some frequency from people alleging abuse and neglect in the foster care system.
“Is it happening less frequently?” he said. “I hope so.”