SEATTLE - A King County Superior Court jury ordered the state to pay $6.2 million Tuesday to four siblings who were repeatedly abused in foster care for six years, the latest in a string of legal troubles for the state Department of Social and Health Services.
The jury deliberated for three days following the three-week trial, which centered on whether the state was negligent in licensing and monitoring the Seattle and Tacoma foster homes where the children stayed.
Most of the Williams siblings' abuse occurred between 1993 and 1998, while they stayed at the Seattle home of Pearl Hall, evidence showed. Hall, now deceased, beat the children with extension cords, belts and shoes. Her son Paul, a teenager at the time, sexually abused the three oldest children, said Kathy Goater, an attorney for the children.
In 2001, Paul Hall was convicted in King County Superior Court of child rape and child molestation in the case.
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Robert Williams, now 16, ran away to a supermarket to avoid another of Pearl Hall's beatings in July 1998, when he was just 7 years old. Police found him there and a few days later the four were moved to a home in Tacoma.
They stayed at the Tacoma home from 1998 to 1999, and were beaten there as well, court documents showed. After 1999, the children were removed from foster care and sent to live with relatives.
The siblings - two boys and two girls - are now 13 to 19 years old.
"It is deeply regrettable that these children had to suffer abuse in a home that should have been a safe place," DSHS spokeswoman Kathy Spears said. "We did try to resolve this matter prior to trial, but the settlement negotiations did not bring us close enough to resolution."
The state attorney general's office is weighing whether to appeal, Spears said.
In 2004, the state agreed to overhaul its foster-care system to settle a case brought by Jessica Braam, who lived in 34 foster homes by the time she sued in 1998. An oversight panel was assigned to work with DSHS in improving foster parent training and support, preventing unsafe placements and making other changes, but the state has been sued several times in recent years.
Last month, the state agreed to pay $290,000 to settle a lawsuit accusing the state of negligence in the case of an 8-year-old foster child sexually abused at a foster home in Ellensburg in 2002. In April, a multimillion-dollar lawsuit filed in Yakima County blamed state social workers for ignoring warnings that could have avoided abuse that left a 6-year-old girl brain damaged and partially blind.
Goater's co-counsel, Becky Roe, said she had never seen a group of children who so badly slipped through the system's cracks, and she hoped the verdict Tuesday would encourage the state to get its act together when it comes to protecting foster children.
"They are supposed to be monitoring and complying with their own policies, and they weren't," Roe said.
The siblings did not see a case worker for the first 18 months after they were placed into foster care, evidence showed. After that, different case workers sporadically monitored the children until March 1996 when a steady case worker was finally assigned, Roe said. At the time, foster children were supposed to be visited every 30 days. At a news conference, the oldest of the four children, De'Arra Williams, 19, praised her brother Robert for running away to the supermarket and changing their lives.
"He saved us," she said.