The state has agreed to pay $2.85 million to a 21-year-old woman after she said a social worker botched a child-abuse referral and returned her to the care of her father, who then physically and sexually abused her.
The state and attorneys for Amber Wright announced the settlement Friday after it was accepted by a Pierce County Superior Court judge.
The state also has been ordered to pay Wright $650,000 for violating the state’s public records law. The state has appealed that order.
Wright’s attorney, David P. Moody, said his client is focused on moving forward. The lawsuit against the state Department of Health and Human Services had been scheduled to go to trial later this month.
“This is an example of good DSHS, bad DSHS,” Moody said. “Unfortunately, she was drugged and raped and beaten countless times in between.”
In a statement, state officials said they regretted the abuse Wright suffered at the hands of her father.
“DSHS believes that the agreement fairly compensates this young woman, who can use the proceeds to meet any special needs she may have in the future,” agency spokesman Thomas Shapley said.
Wright sued the state in 2009, alleging a state social worker failed to properly investigate allegations of abuse and neglect against her father.
According to the complaint, Wright was living in Pierce County with her father, David Wright, in 2004 when Sumner police arrested him on suspicion of child molestation, providing drugs to minors, attempted child molestation and communicating with a minor for immoral purposes.
He was jailed, and temporary custody of his then-13-year-old daughter and her younger brother was given to their paternal grandmother. DSHS also was notified of the arrest and opened an investigation.
David Wright later was released from jail without charges being filed.
The lawsuit alleged that the social worker allowed him to visit his daughter after his release. When he asked whether he could have his children, the social worker said he “could not prevent him from getting an apartment with his children,” the lawsuit states.
The social worker then closed the referral as unfounded. He noted that Amber Wright and her brother had been doing well with their grandmother and the risk of further harm was minimal. A short time later, David Wright left Pierce County with his children and moved to Pacific County.
The lawsuit alleged David Wright physically and sexually abused his daughter nearly every day. She ran away from home in May 2005 and reported the abuse. David Wright later pleaded guilty to charges of child molestation and was sentenced to prison.
Amber Wright’s lawsuit said DSHS took no steps to protect her despite “a litany of warnings from members of the community, including concerned neighbors, local law enforcement and no less than five other children who report that they too were molested by (the same) abuser.”
“This is social work 101,” Moody said.
DSHS said the 2004 referral was closed after Amber Wright denied the abuse had taken place and after a forensic exam for evidence of sexual abuse was inconclusive. The agency acknowledged the best practice would have been for the social worker to follow up with law enforcement officials and pursue other information before closing the referral.
The department noted it has made several changes in recent years, including not just taking a child’s word that they are not being abused or neglected. Social workers are directed to conduct a more thorough investigation by interviewing family members and others before closing a case.