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Tuesday, August 20, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Twin girls were starved by mother, failed by state watchdog: Lawsuit filed

Kai Martinez wipes her tears on May 20, 2015, in Yakima County Superior Court after pleading guilty to multiple abuse charges. (Mason Trinca / Yakima Herald-Republic)
Kai Martinez wipes her tears on May 20, 2015, in Yakima County Superior Court after pleading guilty to multiple abuse charges. (Mason Trinca / Yakima Herald-Republic)
By Donald W. Meyers Yakima Herald-Republic

YAKIMA – Two young girls who were nearly starved to death by their mother in 2015 are suing the state and a for-profit substance-abuse treatment provider.

The state Department of Children, Youth and Families and Triumph Treatment Services are accused of failing to properly supervise Kai Martinez when she was granted custody of her twin daughters in the lawsuit filed Monday in Thurston County Superior Court by Yakima-based attorneys Bryan G. Smith and Vito de la Cruz.

“I don’t know if the red flags could have been any redder or bigger,” Smith said Thursday.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages, as well as attorneys’ fees and any other relief the court deems proper. But de la Cruz said the suit is about more than money.

“In addition to seeking damages for the injuries they suffered, we are hoping to shine a light on how the state treats these vulnerable children,” de la Cruz said. “This is not the first case of children (under state supervision) being starved. The state is not providing adequate supervision for those who are under their control.”

DCYF declined to comment on the lawsuit, noting that it is barred from releasing confidential child-welfare information and because it is involved in active litigation.

Attempts to contact Triumph, which operated the halfway house in Yakima where the starvation is alleged to have taken place, were not successful.

The lawsuit notes the state became involved with the girls at birth in 2006, when they were taken from Martinez because of her drug use. They were initially placed with Martinez’s mother but moved to a foster home after another child in the woman’s care died after accidentally ingesting methadone.

Yakama Nation Tribal Court initially granted custody to the state, the records said, and ordered Martinez to take parenting classes, get substance abuse treatment and get into stable housing before she could come back to her children.

But in 2013, when Martinez said she wanted to see the foster family adopt the girls, the tribal court ordered DCYF to consider placing the girls with relatives, the court records said. Those relatives told DCYF that the girls should stay in the foster home instead.

In December 2013, the tribal court directed the state to place the children with relatives, but instead the state returned them to Martinez, despite her protests, the suit said.

Neither Martinez nor the children qualify as Yakama Nation citizens, the suit said. State officials never challenged the tribal court’s jurisdiction.

“There seems to be a practice under the state agency to interpret the (federal Indian Child) Welfare Act that, no matter how far they are removed from an enrolled tribal member, the case will be sent to tribal court,” Smith said.

The act establishes standards for when Native American children can be removed from their homes, and requires placements that maintain ties to their tribal culture and community.

Initially, Martinez and the girls were living in a home operated by Triumph in Toppenish, and later moved to a Triumph home in Yakima in October 2014, according to court documents.

During the time, DCYF and Triumph’s staff failed to monitor Martinez or check to see if the girls were safe, the suit alleges, even ignoring a DCYF worker’s recommendation that they stay with their foster parents instead.

On Feb. 6, 2015, concerned relatives took the girls from Martinez’s home after finding that they had been starved to the point where they weighed less than half of what a healthy 8-year-old child should, court documents said.

Martinez also subjected the girls to physical abuse as well as confining them to a bedroom without access to the toilet, court documents said.

De la Cruz said one of the girls, now 12, has lost some of her eyesight due to being hit by Martinez. The girls have since been returned to their foster parents.

Police detectives and doctors described the girls’ ordeal in court papers as torture. At a court hearing, Yakima Police Detective Mike Durbin said the girls looked like Holocaust survivors when he first saw them.

Martinez pleaded guilty to two counts each of first-degree criminal mistreatment and third-degree child assault, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison in May 2015.

Martinez’s boyfriend, Roberto Valladares, pleaded guilty to two counts of third-degree assault for failing to either stop the abuse or report Martinez, and was sentenced to six months in jail. Valladares was not the girls’ biological father.

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