First of two parts.
In April 1987, twin sisters were born to a family living in rural Stevens County. The following November, a brother was born.
Even before that time, the state agency charged with protecting Washington’s children knew that their mother had “a founded history of abusing and neglecting her other children,” according to a lawsuit the state recently settled.
Over the next nine years, a raft of problems in the home were reported to Child Protective Services: a “paramour” of the children’s mother threw one child against a wall, causing brain damage; the mother left the kids in the car while she drank in bars; she used drugs and provided them to minors; and she inflicted or allowed a range of alleged neglect, abuse and assault, including sexual abuse.
At one point, a toddler in her care was found riding his tricycle on the railroad tracks.
Ten times, the children were removed from the home. Nine times, they were returned.
This is the story of the 10th time. A story of grotesque parental misconduct in two families, of decisions state child-welfare workers made and did not make, of the multimillion-dollar settlement the state agreed to earlier this month, and of the lifelong consequences still crashing through the lives of the children.
Not long after the births of the twins and their brother, a 21-year-old man in nearby Chewelah named Michael Wenger met his future wife: a 14-year-old girl named Sylvia.
Michael was a leader in the Pathfinders, a kind of Seventh-day Adventist scouting program, and Sylvia was a Pathfinder youth. According to court records, they dated until Sylvia turned 18, when they married. Sylvia would later tell a psychologist that she saw nothing wrong with a 21-year-old man dating a teenager.
Three years later, in 1995, they applied to become foster parents.
That same year, according to court records, the mother of the twin girls and their brother attempted suicide in front of them. This somehow did not provoke a “dependency” action, the legal mechanism through which the state intervenes to protect children, often requiring changes in the home before children are returned and in extreme cases resulting in the children being removed from the home for good.
This was far from the first time the state child welfare system considered, and then decided against, filing a dependency petition on these children’s behalf. In 1987, a social worker recommended a dependency action over concerns for the children’s health and medical care, but it didn’t happen. In 1989, the children’s mother fled to avoid a felony warrant; when she was caught with her children in New York state, she was arrested and the children were removed from her custody, only to be returned later back in Washington. In 1994, a social worker, citing chronic abuse and neglect, again recommended that the state take the children from the home.
Again, the recommendation was ignored.
When she applied to become a foster mother, Sylvia Wenger admitted to her interviewer that she’d shoplifted a month earlier. It was a one-time aberration, she said. She didn’t know what had come over her.
Asked about her family – what social workers call her “family of origin,” which is a concern because the children would be around them regularly – Wenger said she “couldn’t ask for a better family.” She said she didn’t know of any abuse or violence in her family.
The Wengers didn’t have children of their own or any experience as parents. The social worker who evaluated their application referred to it as a “close call,” but in December 1995 they were licensed as a foster home. The next month a 2-year-old child was placed in their custody.
By May 1996, their social worker had learned some additional facts about Sylvia Wenger. One of her brothers was in prison for murder. Another had been accused of kidnapping a young girl. Another had a restraining order against their mother. Sylvia herself, court records allege, had stolen money intended for a family real estate purchase over the course of a year and taken a camera from someone she was baby-sitting for.
The child was removed from the home, and Sylvia Wenger was referred for a psychological evaluation. The psychologist found her defensive, angry and less than forthcoming, and noted she came from a family with well-known problems of serious abuse, behavioral problems and violence.
A former DSHS employee and longtime social worker, Jane Ramon, would later say in a sworn statement: “Any reasonably prudent licensor would have very serious concerns about the suitability of an applicant whose family history is laced with violent criminality and who has a history of theft and deception. … The facts concealed by Sylvia raised grave concerns about her suitability to care for foster children. Her concealment of those facts amplified the concerns. Allowing the Wengers to remain licensed was out of the question.”
Except that it wasn’t. Licensing the Wenger family remained, in the eyes of the DSHS, a close call. The family’s social worker urged her superiors to deny them a license, arguing that Sylvia Wenger’s material omissions on her applications violated the legal standard for providing the license.
A supervisor overruled her. The Wengers were relicensed as foster parents in June 1996.
The following month, the mother of the twins and their brother failed to show up and pick up the children at school. Given all that had come before, this was the final straw for state child protection workers. They began a dependency process to remove the children from the home.
In July 1996, the twin girls and their brother were placed in the home of Michael and Sylvia Wenger. Six months later, a 15-month-old boy was placed there as well.
Coming Saturday: Life with the Wengers.
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