The Washington Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) is the target of a $54 million lawsuit filed on behalf of five children from Vancouver, Wash. who were physically and emotionally abused by their parents over the course of almost ten years.
According to news reports, Sandra and Jeff Weller were found criminally guilty of 14 counts of abuse in March of 2012 and, as a result, the couple was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Court documents indicate that the couple was found guilty of imprisoning, starving and beating their adopted twin children. The couple had three biological children who were also subjected to the imprisonment and abuse, according to the documents.
In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs argue that DSHS should also be held responsible for the years of horrifying child abuse that the children were subjected to because state workers failed to act on at least 26 reported warnings from witnesses about potential abuse and neglect of the children. Records show that DSHS in Vancouver began receiving tips about the alleged abuse in 2003, examples of which were revealed in the public records:
- 1/7/2003 – An unidentified caller reports suspicions of physical neglect.
- 12/4/03 – An unidentified caller reports that Sandra Weller is physically neglecting and abusing her children.
- 4/7/04 – A relative reports he’s concerned for the children based on their mother’s parenting.
- 4/9/04 – A relative reports the mother is emotionally abusing the children and requests CPS ask for a welfare check by Vancouver Police.
- 6/15/04 – An unidentified caller reports that Jeff Weller is physically abusing his children.
- 7/24/04 – An unidentified caller accuses the mother of physical neglect and sexual abuse.
- 8/1/04 – An unidentified caller suspects the mother of physical neglect and abuse.
- 9/27/04 – An unidentified caller is concerned food is being withheld from the children, that food is locked up in the home, and that the mother locks children in their rooms for two days.
- 1/3/05 and 1/8/05 – An unidentified caller reports the mother is physically neglecting her children.
- 3/4/05 – An unidentified caller reports the mother is physically neglecting her children.
- 5/5/05 – A relative calls with concerns about the children and the CPS investigation. He’s told the case is closed and the social worker will not be calling him back.
- 5/11/05 – A school nurse calls with concerns about the children’s hunger and the mother’s emotional abuse of the children. She reports that Sandra Weller chastised the children in public, calling them “criminals, con artists, thieves ... who ruined her life, (are) wrecking her marriage and her house.”
- 5/13/05 – A school secretary calls with concerns of mental abuse. She reports the mother accused her daughter of stealing $400 worth of meat and refuses to pack a lunch for the child because she will “hog it down and stash it up (her) sleeve for later.”
- 9/6/05 – A medical professional calls with concerns of emotional abuse. She reports that Sandra Weller described her daughter as being a “monster and evil” and does not exhibit any type of nurturing toward the child.
- 9/7/05 – A medical professional reports concerns that one of the children has not put on any weight in a year and that the child is 10 but appears to be only 5 years old.
- 2/5/06 – An unidentified caller reports the mother is physically neglecting her children.
- 2/10/06 – A teacher calls with “extreme” concerns that the children are not fed at home and that the mother calls the children “stupid, retarded, thieves.” The teacher reports he is “100% certain” the children are not safe at home.
- 2/13/06 – A teacher reports the mother has stated several times that “she’d love to get rid (of her two adopted children) but that she gets the adoption support (money) and she needs it."
- 7/17/06 - An unidentified caller reports the mother is physically neglecting her children.
- 12/31/07 – A child specialist reports that the children complain of receiving “very little food," that this has been a long time concern and that the parents placed a lock on their refrigerator door.
- 1/4/08 – The youngest child, 9-years-old at the time, tells a social worker he had to stand in the corner for a couple of days as punishment, that he is hit with a belt for lying, and that he goes without food. The social worker writes in his report that he told the child he didn’t believe him and that the child is “manipulative."
Oldest Child Leaves Secret Note with Counselor
In 2011, the oldest daughter of all the siblings left a scribbled note in the office of her high school counselor that finally alerted authorities to the abuse that was going on at the home. According to news reports, the young girl’s note to her counselor read:
“I need you to call CPS. ... Me and (my brother) are being beat with a board about three and a half feet long. ... (Our parents) have promised (the board) to us after we leave your office because our room in not clean. ... PLEASE HELP!!”
When officials from Child Protective Services (CPS) and local police responded to the home two days later, they found abundant signs of abuse and maltreatment. The oldest daughter was allegedly balding as a result of malnourishment, and upon entering the home officials found the fridge and food cupboards were sealed with locks.
Police officers also allegedly found a 42-inch long wooden board inside the home and were able to identify it as a weapon that the parents used to beat each of the children. One testifying officer claimed that one end of the wooden board was covered in dried blood, likely as a result of beating the children.
DSHS Liability in Child Abuse Cases
Legally speaking, DSHS is obligated to investigate every individual allegation and/or tip that they receive regarding potential abuse or neglect of children in the state of Washington. On its website, DSHS says “Offices within local communities are responsible for receiving and investigating reports of suspected child abuse and neglect. Reports are received by Child Protective Services (CPS) located in each community office and assessed to determine whether the report meets the legal definition of abuse or neglect and how dangerous the situation is.”
What’s especially disturbing about this particular child abuse case is that there were such a large number of reports and tips to DSHS from a number of different sources. The people who attempted to report the suspected abuse to DSHS included family members, employees at the children’s schools and medical providers – all people who are qualified to at least some extent to evaluate the well-being of a young child.
It is because of this that DSHS – and subsequently the state – is the target of this multi-million dollar lawsuit. Had the state acted appropriately and according to its own policies and guidelines, there’s a chance that a significant amount of the abuse that these innocent children endured could have been prevented.