Girls allowed to live with addict and sex offender, suit claims

Drug treatment provider OnTrack has been named in a $15.3 million lawsuit that alleges two girls were physically and sexually abused while they were allowed to live with their meth-addicted mother in a mobile home with a registered predatory sex offender.

Lawyers for the two girls originally filed the lawsuit in 2016 against the Oregon Department of Human Services and child welfare workers who were handling the girls’ cases.

In a new complaint filed in late October, the lawyers added Medford-based OnTrack to the list of those being sued.

OnTrack declined to comment about being added to the lawsuit.

Lawyers for DHS and the girls previously declined to comment on details of the pending litigation.

The case is scheduled to go to trial in January 2019 in Jackson County Circuit Court.

In March 2014, DHS took custody of the girls and three of their half-siblings after receiving a report from police about concerns over drug use, domestic violence and a lack of food in the home where the five children lived. The girls, ages 2 and 5 at the time, were placed with a relative, then moved into a foster home, the lawsuit said.

On May 12, 2014, the girls’ mother agreed to move into OnTrack emergency housing and the girls were returned to her there. The lawsuit alleged the girls were exposed to illegal drugs and the sexual activity of their mother and her boyfriend, who visited frequently.

With OnTrack’s knowledge and under its continuing care, the mother left the emergency housing with the girls May 29, 2014, and moved into a relative’s mobile home where a registered sex offender was living, the lawsuit alleged.

The next day, an attorney for the girls’ out-of-state grandmother called to warn DHS that the girls were living with a registered predatory sex offender in the White City mobile home. Even before the call, DHS knew an unsafe person lived there, the lawsuit said.

Meanwhile, the girls’ teenage half-brother underwent a screening assessment and reported he thought he was possessed by demonic forces and was hearing voices in his head that sometimes told him to hurt others. The screener sent an email to DHS caseworkers expressing concerns about the boy, the lawsuit said.

The half-brother was removed from a different foster home for alleged inappropriate contact with a child. He was later allowed to move into the White City mobile home June 12, 2014, with a relative, his mother, the registered sex offender and the two young girls, the lawsuit said.

The girls were often left alone with their half-brother and the sex offender, who sexually abused, hit, kicked, neglected and threatened them. When the girls were in the care of their mother and her boyfriend, they were abused and/or neglected while the couple used methamphetamine, the lawsuit alleged.

The out-of-state grandmother and her attorney continued to contact DHS with warnings about the sex offender, the presence of illegal drugs in the home and visible injuries to the girls, the lawsuit alleged.

The grandmother won custody of the girls after a hearing July 30, 2014, in Jackson County Circuit Court. An attorney for DHS asked her whether she would also take the girls’ half-brother, and she agreed to do so, the lawsuit said.

The grandmother was not told the half-brother had psychological problems and needed mental health treatment, or that he had been removed from a foster home due to inappropriate contact with a child. He continued to physically, sexually and emotionally abuse the girls at the grandmother’s home, the lawsuit alleged.

The alleged abuse at the mobile home and grandmother’s house came to light when one of the girls disclosed the abuse Sept. 9, 2015, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit faulted DHS on a variety of fronts, including that it knowingly placed children in the physical custody of a meth-addict living in a home with a registered sex offender.

In a written answer to the lawsuit, DHS said the mother left OnTrack housing without DHS advice, permission or knowledge. It also said the DHS caseworkers acted in good faith and are barred from being sued because of caseworker immunity.

DHS said in the answer the registered sex offender’s conviction was 30 years old and he had fully complied with all reporting and counseling requirements.

Jackson County Circuit Court records show the man pleaded guilty to third-degree sodomy in 1986.

The lawsuit faulted OnTrack for failing to make sure the girls were safe and properly supervised while they lived with their mother in emergency housing and later the mobile home.

OnTrack also failed to promptly notify DHS the mother was continuing to use meth, was often gone from the mobile home and associated with unsafe people, the lawsuit alleged.

OnTrack and DHS have not yet filed written answers to the latest version of the lawsuit that names OnTrack as an additional defendant, court records show.

In January 2018, Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson released an audit that said DHS is chronically understaffed and the state lacks enough foster homes to meet the needs of at-risk children.

The audit said decisions about the placement of children are often influenced by that shortage of foster homes.

“Since 2006, DHS has paid out $39 million in legal settlements due to the agency’s inability to consistently keep children in their care safe from abuse and neglect,” the audit said. “While some risk exposure is expected within the Child Welfare program, the frequency and amount of these legal awards suggest a lack of strategic risk management within the agency and an unhealthy tolerance for serious risks to children.”

The audit said The Strengthening, Preserving and Reunifying Families Act passed by the Oregon Legislature in 2011 has focused DHS efforts on keeping children with their families when possible, but the effect on child outcomes is not clear.

The legislation promotes supportive services for families, including alcohol and drug treatment for parents, the creation of safety plans for kids left in their family homes and supervised housing where parents and children can live together while engaged in family strengthening activities, according Oregon Revised Statutes.

According to the lawsuit, OnTrack had a contract with DHS to provide Strengthening, Preserving and Reunifying Families Act services to families, including the girls and their mother.

In a separate local lawsuit filed against DHS in 2017, the state agency is being sued for $5.25 million over allegations it placed a baby boy in foster care with his aunt, whose boyfriend savagely beat the baby.

The lawsuit said DHS failed to adequately evaluate the aunt as a foster care provider and didn’t investigate whether a foster child would be safe in the presence of the boyfriend, Petey Ray Henthorne.

That civil case is scheduled to go to trial in April 2019, according to Jackson County Circuit Court records.

In a criminal case, a jury found Henthorne guilty of first-degree assault and first-degree criminal mistreatment in 2017. He was sentenced to 7 1/2 years in prison.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

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