OLYMPIA - Sixteen years after allegations of ritual sex abuse rocked Wenatchee, a Thurston County jury will begin deliberations today to decide whether the state was negligent in its treatment of a former foster child at the center of the 1995 investigation.
Melinda Everett’s civil lawsuit says the Department of Social and Health Services should not have placed her in the home of former Wenatchee police detective Robert Perez.
The lawsuit alleges it was a conflict of interest for DSHS to place Everett in the Perez home as he investigated allegations that Everett’s father sexually abused her. She was then 11.
Jurors heard closing arguments Tuesday, concluding a five-week jury trial before Superior Court Judge Thomas McPhee.
Assistant Attorney General Paul James, who represented DSHS at trial, said the agency always had Everett’s safety and welfare in mind as it investigated claims of sex abuse against Everett’s parents.
In May 1995, when Everett was placed in foster care in Perez’s home, he had a good track record as a foster parent, James said. DSHS counselors could not have known at the time that there was a risk of harm there, he added.
James reminded the jury that in the mid-1990s, a doctor said Everett’s allegations of sexual abuse by her father were 100 percent founded. The girl suffered extreme psychological trauma because of this sexual abuse, he said.
James added that DSHS was not responsible for her subsequent placement in an institutional setting because of her psychiatric issues.
“We did our job, we did it right,” he said.
Everett’s attorney, Tyler Firkins, countered James’ contention that Everett’s parents, Harold and Idella Everett, sexually abused her.
The couple settled their civil claims against DSHS in 2009, in return for a $25,000 payment, according to the state Attorney General’s Office.
Firkins said during his closing argument that the flawed interviewing methods employed by Perez and others brought about false allegations that Everett, her sister and other local children “had been ritualistically abused by a massive number of men in the Wenatchee area.”
Firkins cited the trial testimony of experts that “when allegations of sexual abuse become ritualistic and bizarre, the more likely that they were the result of improper questioning.”
Nearly all of the adults arrested in Wenatchee as a result of Perez’s sex abuse investigation later were cleared.
Firkins said jurors need only their common sense to realize it was improper for an 11-year-old to move in with a detective who was responsible for sending the child’s parents to jail during a case in which the child would have to testify in court as a prosecution witness.
Firkins added that one potential result of such a living arrangement was witness tampering. He also said DSHS should have known such a placement might hurt Everett’s emotional development.
The suit also alleges DSHS “negligently breached a duty owed” to Everett as a foster child by:
• Switching her counselor at Perez’s request.
• Restricting her contact with her brother, Richard.
• Placing her in another temporary foster home and later in psychiatric institutions, after she left the Perez residence, when she should have been given a long-term placement.
Some of Firkins’ most scathing criticism of DSHS came in his allegation that DSHS counselors did Perez’s bidding by changing Everett’s therapist after the therapist “dared to question his dual role” as a detective and Everett’s foster parent.
Firkins also said DSHS should have known it was improper to place Everett in Perez’s home because they knew of allegations of abuse in the household against Everett’s sister while she lived there.
James said the contention that DSHS knew of allegations of abuse in the Perez home is false.
Firkins said that Everett, now 28, still suffers because of the “chaos, institutionalization and despair” she endured because of DSHS’ negligence.
He suggested Everett deserves $1 million in damages for each year she spent in DSHS care, including about six months with the Perez family and four years in assorted institutions.
“This is what the defendants gave her, an empty childhood filled with despair,” he said.
Jurors must decided whether DSHS “substantially deviated from accepted professional judgment, standards or practices for social workers,” in deciding whether DSHS was negligent.
They also must decide whether now retired DSHS counselor Connie Saracino violated Everett’s “constitutional right to be free from unreasonable risk of harm” when Saracino placed Everett in the Perez home.
Jeremy Pawloski: 360-754-5465 firstname.lastname@example.org