OLYMPIA – As Carole Ann DeLeon sits in jail, charged with killing her adopted son by depriving him of water, several of her foster children are filing millions of dollars in claims against the state for failing to protect them from physical or emotional abuse.
So far, claims totaling more than $55 million have been filed against the Washington Department of Social and Health Services on behalf of five children, including the estate of 7-year-old Tyler DeLeon, who died in DeLeon’s Deer Park-area home in 2005. State records show that school officials, in particular, repeatedly reported concerns about the bruised, emaciated boy.
“They were abused in a licensed foster home,” said Cynthia Novotny, one of the lawyers representing the children. “And despite 16 CPS (Child Protective Services) referrals, CPS did nothing to protect these kids.”
Tyler DeLeon’s estate is represented by Breann Beggs of Spokane’s Center for Justice, a public interest law firm. He couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday.
The criminal case against Carole DeLeon, meanwhile, seems set to go to trial as scheduled July 16. Stevens County Prosecutor Tim Rasmussen said Tuesday that plea negotiations with DeLeon have broken down. She has pleaded innocent to homicide by abuse and to an additional charge of second-degree criminal mistreatment of a second boy, identified in court records by his initials: S.M.M.
Superior Court Judge Al Nielson has also approved busing in a jury from Okanogan County to hear the high-profile case in the Colville courtroom. Anticipating the need for a large jury pool, court officials plan to use a hotel ballroom in Okanagon County, rather than a courtroom, to select those jurors.
In Olympia, the children’s claims have rolled in over the past year, the most recent arriving this month. Most are for $10 million; one in Tyler’s name is for $15 million. The surviving children will likely need lifelong counseling, Novotny said, and may be so traumatized that they’ll never be able to hold down a job. Plus, she said, the children should be compensated “for having had to live in such a torturous environment. The state should have been there to protect them, and wasn’t.”
A DSHS spokeswoman said the agency has made substantial changes in the wake of the death but referred specific questions about the claims to the attorney general’s office, which didn’t want to comment.
Novotny’s law firm says it also intends to file claims against the children’s pediatricians and others who should have detected and reported negligence or abuse.
“How many 7-year-olds weigh 28 pounds?” she said, referring to Tyler DeLeon’s weight when he died.
State records paint a bleak picture of life in the home, where Tyler was one of six children in the care of DeLeon and her adult daughter, Christina DeLeon-Burns. Of average weight when he was brought to the home as an infant in 1998, the boy gained only 12 pounds in the ensuing 6 1/2 years. Carole DeLeon insisted that his teachers and caregivers not give him food or water, to the point of watching him in the bathroom to ensure that he didn’t drink from a toilet. She claimed that the boy could have a life-threatening reaction to overeating or drinking – a diagnosis for which subsequent state investigations have found no evidence. A day before he died, the boy reportedly tore through his basement window screen so he could eat snow.
State records regarding Tyler show a litany of reported cuts, bruises, a severely broken leg and two teeth “knocked out.” DeLeon, state records indicate, informed his Lake Spokane Elementary School teachers that they should ignore such injuries because Tyler would injure himself and “make up stories.” School officials described the boy’s daily lunch as half a sandwich and “no more than 2 ounces of milk,” – and that DeLeon would require the boy to return home with a bite of sandwich and swallow of milk remaining. She complained frequently about his “distended tummy,” which she attributed to overeating.
The claimants include children ages 7, 9 and 11, as well as Amber Lynn Daniels, who is now 18. (The law firm, Ressler and Tesh, says it also represents a sixth child from the DeLeon home. The state’s tort claims office could not immediately locate a sixth claim Tuesday.)
According to court documents filed in Stevens County, Daniels lived at the DeLeon home from 1998 to 2000. In that time, her weight plummeted from 175 pounds to 102. She told investigators that DeLeon forced her to go without water for long periods, and she once had to sneak a drink from the dog bowl.
As punishment, Daniels told sheriff’s Detective Jerry Taylor, DeLeon made her carry hamburger in her mouth on an hours-long trip to a mall.
DeLeon’s attorney, Carl Oreskovich, didn’t return a call Tuesday seeking comment on the allegations and claims.
State records also suggest that DeLeon was frustrated and overwhelmed by misbehavior by Tyler. In a sobbing conversation with a caseworker in December 2005, she said she never did anything injurious to any of her children and that Tyler had been “a big eater.”
The same files include numerous references to bruises on her children and allegations that she hit some with a spatula. In Wyoming, where DeLeon had been a foster mother in the 1980s before having her license terminated, a 12-year-old girl said she was deprived of food, fed animal feed as punishment, and had her hands tied behind her back for taking food.
State records include an allegation that the girl was tied up and left in the basement overnight as punishment for eating three sticks of string cheese. A 1988 CPS investigative record says a physician found rope burns on the girl’s wrists, belt marks on her buttocks, and bruises on her face and thigh. An accompanying record says the girl was “tormented, treated without regard to human dignity … (and) belittled.”
That girl, now an adult named Mary Shuhart Dees, is slated to testify at DeLeon’s trial.
Even if the state must pay tens of millions of dollars in damages to the children, Novotny said, she’s reluctant to say it will have a substantial impact on how such cases are handled.
“The state keeps saying that they’re going to change their policies every time a child dies,” she said. “It doesn’t appear that happens.”
DSHS spokeswoman Kathy Spears disagrees. More than 95 percent of high-risk child-abuse complaints are now investigated within 24 hours instead of the previous 10-day standard, she said. A better database of past incidents is being developed. Staffers have access to an FBI database for background checks. And the department is phasing in state visits to foster children every 30 days.
If the state won’t settle the cases, Novotny said, the children’s claims will likely be filed as lawsuits in Spokane in a couple of months.