A Thurston County jury has awarded $600,000 to a former foster child at the center of an investigation into allegations of ritual sex abuse in Wenatchee in the mid-1990s.
The jury on Monday found that the state Department of Social and Health Services and a former DSHS counselor, Connie Saracino, were negligent in failing to act more quickly to remove the then-11-year-old girl from the home of a former Wenatchee police detective after allegations of neglect came to light.
Melinda Everett, now 28, a plaintiff in the sex-abuse case, lived for a brief time in the home of detective, Robert Perez, while he investigated the case.
Many of the adults arrested as a result of Perez’s investigation were later cleared of wrongdoing. Tyler Firkins, Everett’s attorney in the civil trial, which lasted six weeks in Thurston County Superior Court, reminded the jury during closing arguments that flawed interviewing methods by Perez and others resulted in false allegations by Everett and the other children who were involved in the case.
In his closing argument, Firkins cited the trial testimony of experts that “when allegations of sexual abuse become more ritualistic and bizarre, the more likely that they were the result of improper questioning.”
However, the allegations of negligence in Everett’s civil suit did not ask the jury to settle questions about the veracity of the mid-’90s allegations. Rather, the jury was asked to decide whether DSHS was negligent in allowing Everett to be placed in the Perez home while he was investigating the sex-abuse case against her parents.
The jury was also asked to find DSHS negligent in forcing her to be separated from her brother and in allowing her to be institutionalized for a period that lasted until she aged out of DSHS’ jurisdiction.
Firkins suggested that Everett was entitled to about $4.5 million in damages from DSHS, about $1 million for each year she spent in its care.
However, after four full days of deliberation, the jury failed to find that Everett was entitled to damages except for about a three-month period in late 1995, when she lived in the Perez home.
The jury did not find that DSHS was negligent for placing Everett in the Perez home and did not find that placing her there violated her constitutional right to be free from an unreasonable risk of harm. The jury did rule that DSHS was negligent in not acting on a Sept. 20, 1995, report in which Everett alleged neglect in the Perez home. The jury also found that after DSHS received the September 1995 report from Everett’s mental health counselor, the agency was negligent in allowing Everett to remain there.
Saracino violated Everett’s “constitutional right to be free from unreasonable risk of harm,” the jury decided.
The alleged neglect was that Everett was ordered off the property while wearing pajamas. This information was passed from Everett’s mental health counselor to Saracino on Sept. 20, 1995.
The jury also found that DSHS negligently replaced Everett’s mental health counselor. Firkins had argued during closing arguments that DSHS changed the mental health counselor at Perez’s request because the counselor “dared question his dual role” as foster parent and criminal investigator. However, the jury found that Everett was not damaged by the change of counselors.
“The jury didn’t award huge damages against the state because the work of the social workers was on balance very good,” said Assistant Attorney General Paul James after Monday’s verdict came in shortly after 5 p.m.
James said no decision has been made on whether the Attorney General’s Office will appeal the jury’s verdict.
Everett’s co-counsel, Michael Kelly, did not immediately comment after the verdict.
DSHS is responsible for paying $595,000 of the award, and Saracino is responsible for $5,000.