The Department of Social and Health Services agreed Monday to pay $5.3 million to four people who were subjected to years of physical and sexual abuse as children in a Stevens County foster home.
The payout would be among the highest of its kind in state history and settle a federal lawsuit. Litigation began in 2008, and the case now awaits final approval by U.S. District Court Judge Justin Quackenbush.
The suit alleged that civil rights were violated when the state improperly placed four children into the foster care of Sylvia and Michael Wenger, of Chewelah.
The couple were later imprisoned for seven years for child molestation.
Seattle attorneys Allen Ressler and Tim Tesh represented the children, three of whom are now adults.
“One child was sexually assaulted starting at age 9 or 10 and she ran away at 13. If they threw up their oatmeal, they were forced to eat their own vomit,” Ressler said. “One of the boys was handcuffed down in a cold basement room. They were beaten, physically abused.”
The abuse began in 1995 when state social worker Becky Berry approved the Wengers’ foster parent application – even though she knew the Wengers started dating when Sylvia was an underage teenager and neither had been parents.
In January 1996, Berry placed a 2-year-old child in the couple’s care only to learn in May of that year that Sylvia Wenger omitted from her application that she had a brother who was a convicted killer, and another who was a sex offender, Ressler said. Upon learning about her family, Berry removed the child.
A month later, however, in June 1996, the couple moved to Chewelah and the state renewed the Wengers’ license and placed four children in their care. The children weren’t removed until 2001, even though the children reported their abuse to state caseworkers, according to their attorney.
“In the years following their placement in the Wenger home, (the children) were subjected to daily beatings, force-feeding punishments, and other forms of grinding, extreme physical abuse,” the suit states.
Ressler argued that children would never have suffered such abuse if the state had not violated its own protocols by issuing the foster care license to Sylvia Wenger.
Assistant Attorney General Carl Warring said Ressler and Tesh have a different view than state officials.
“Their argument is the state could or should have done better. We are not going to share the same view of the facts,” said Warring, who led the state’s defense against the claims. “The department settling the case gives each of the plaintiffs a chance to move forward and address the issues from their time in that home.”
Denise Revels Robinson, assistant secretary of DSHS Children’s Administration, acknowledged in a news release that most of the facts in the case were uncontested.
“It is truly unfortunate that these children suffered at the hands of adults they had trusted to love and keep them safe,” she said.
Though the two sides failed to settle the case through mediation, Quackenbush asked the attorneys to keep talking.
“Although nothing can change what happened in that home,” DSHS spokeswoman Chris Case said in the news release, “DSHS believes that the agreement fairly compensates these individuals, who can use the proceeds to meet any special needs they may have in the future.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.