Sisters awarded $2 million for years of abuse in state care

Jury finds that case workers didn't believe children's cries for help.

Anchorage Daily NewsApril 21, 2012 

The state of Alaska was supposed to protect the sisters from a mother who drank and did drugs, and from the increasing violence between her and their stepfather.

But, a Kenai jury recently found, the state put them in places even worse. They suffered years of mistreatment, including sexual abuse in foster care, and the state exacerbated the problems by failing to provide the girls consistent counseling, according to their attorney, Mike Kramer of Fairbanks.

After an eight-day trial this month, the jury sided with the sisters, putting 95 percent of the blame directly on the state, and awarded them more than $2 million in damages, court records show.

Some of the adults, including two case workers who should have been watching out for the sisters, doubted or dismissed their cries for help, which made their emotional problems worse, according to an expert hired by their attorney.

The state hasn't decided whether it will appeal the award, said Cori Badgley, an assistant attorney general not directly involved in the case. "We are still evaluating our options and looking at the jury verdict."

The sisters are now 19 and 21 years old. They took their claims of mistreatment and neglect in foster care to court in hopes of improving the state's child protection system, the older sister said in an interview. The Daily News generally does not name the victims of sexual abuse.

"I don't want kids to have to hurt more than they are already hurting," the 21-year-old said in a telephone interview with her attorney on the line. "Being taken from your parents is very, very tough, and very, very painful. And I don't ever want kids to have the pain that we had."

Kids should be believed when they report abuse, she said. And she wants the state Office of Children's Services to investigate reports of mistreatment and make sure its young wards get essential counseling.

Jurors assessed 5 percent of the blame for the girls' ordeal to their mother, whose life was a chaotic blur of drugs, alcohol and violent relationships.

OCS officials on Friday answered questions about the case in brief, written responses that were vetted through the state Department of Law.

A CHILD WITHOUT A CHILDHOOD

The sisters grew up in state custody starting in 1998 when they were 6 and 8 and continuing for eight years. Their experiences spanned the administrations of two governors, Tony Knowles -- who made improving children's services a top priority -- and Frank Murkowski, who revamped the state Department of Health and Social Services and replaced the beleaguered Division of Family and Youth Services with OCS.

For these two girls, reality didn't reflect the political promises.

In all, there were six siblings, with three fathers. The oldest was a boy, who wasn't sexually abused. The three youngest were eventually adopted by another family and are happy and safe, the older sister said.

The dysfunction in their birth family was deeply rooted.

"This family has a history of domestic violence, chemical dependency and now sexual abuse," Kate Tea, their court-appointed guardian ad litem, wrote in a 2001 court pleading arguing for them to remain in state custody. "The dynamics in this family have promoted fear, secrets, and the division of family members from one another. These children have been at the vortex of the generational violence of physical, emotional and sexual abuse."

While other adults betrayed or ignored the girls, Tea -- who was appointed to advocate for their best interests in court -- was a steady source of support, the older sister said.

Before the girls were taken from their mother, the state had received five reports that they were endangered by, variously, neglect, domestic violence, drugs and alcohol, their attorney said. Most of the reports weren't investigated, he said.

The older sister said she assumed the role of mother -- someone had to care for the little ones. "I don't think I really had a childhood at all," she said. Her own father had killed himself when she was 7.

Meanwhile, the relationship between their mother and stepfather was growing more violent, their attorney said. The stepfather slammed their mother's head through the wall and punched and kicked her, according to the older sister and records filed in court.

The stepfather hit the children too, she said. If they were loud in the morning, their mouths were duct-taped shut.

They were afraid to tell anyone about their abuse, she told jurors, because their stepfather told them foster parents cut up babies and cooked them in the microwave.

GRANDFATHER'S BETRAYAL

Finally, one night in September 1998 when things got particularly bad at home, state workers stepped in. Their maternal grandparents became their state-licensed foster parents. Within a year, Tea and a therapist reported the possibility of sexual abuse of the children to OCS. The older girl was having night terrors -- dreams that included thrashing, kicking and punching -- which can signal sexual abuse. No one followed up.

"If they had asked, I would have told them," the older sister said.

In 2001, the sexual abuse came to light. The girls told a friend, who told her mother, who told the girls' mother. Their mother, despite her troubles, went to the troopers.

The girls told troopers their grandfather, Jack Dominick, molested them on RV camping trips when they traded off sharing a bed with him, according to a trooper's sworn statement. Their little sister, just 2 years old, was also molested, charges filed in Kenai Superior Court say. A nurse who performed sexual assault exams found physical evidence supporting the girls' claims. At home, the girls regularly napped with their grandfather, according to their grandmother, Barbara Dominick, who said she never saw anything inappropriate.

Jack Dominick, a retired state correctional officer, eventually pleaded no-contest to three counts of sexual abuse. He was sentenced to five years in prison.

OCS says the girls were in weekly counseling and regularly saw their guardian ad litem and case worker after the abuse began but before it was discovered. None of the adults saw anything to make them suspect Jack Dominick, OCS told the Daily News this week.

Barbara Dominick, now deceased, doubted the girls' accusations. Early on, she slapped the older girl for "trying to tell her grandmother the truth about something and she did not want to hear it," the girl said, according to a case worker's files.

The case worker, Patricia Gray, wrote on March 21, 2001, that she put off confronting Barbara about the slap because she didn't want to upset her.

When Gray did talk to Barbara two days later, the grandmother said the child was disrespectful. Barbara wanted to increase the dosage of an antidepressant the girl was on because she was "very mouthy."

Just days later, on April 2, the case worker asked a judge to release the sisters and their older brother from agency custody, which would have ended supervision of the home.

"Although the grandmother is undergoing a lot of stress and pressure, she is willing and feels she is capable of taking care of her grandchildren," Gray wrote in a petition to the court.

"It just became too much work, I think," Kramer said. "OCS turned its back on them at their greatest time of need."

GRANDMOTHER'S DISBELIEF

The guardian on the case, Tea, argued in court against ending custody, saying the children needed state protection and her advocacy. The judge ordered state custody to continue.

Though the court didn't remove OCS from the case, OCS virtually removed itself, Kramer said.

After the girls' therapist reported the slapping incident, the grandmother switched the girls to a different therapist, who later told the state the girls had missed more than half their appointments and she was dismissing their case.

"There were additional reports of grandmother slapping and spanking the girls as it became increasingly clear that she disbelieved their disclosures and vented her anger over the loss of her husband on them," according to a written assessment last year by Mike Hopper, a Fairbanks clinical psychologist who reviewed the case records and testified on the sisters' behalf as an expert witness.

The grandmother asked the state to turn over their Permanent Fund dividends, which Tea also opposed and won.

After that, the grandmother said she didn't want them anymore, Kramer said. She kept their older brother, though.

The older sister remembers how a worker drove the girls to their grandmother's home, where they packed their belongings into black plastic garbage bags. They moved back with their mother until she got drunk and was jailed for assaulting their stepfather, according to the girls' attorney.

ANOTHER FOSTER HOME

Next they were placed into a foster home, which was very strictly run, in Kasilof. Food was kept in locked cabinets. The children were kept downstairs; their bedrooms had alarms on the doors and locks on the windows, the older girl said. They mainly stayed in a family room monitored by a video camera. The older girl remembers wearing bulky sweaters because, she said, the foster father was ogling her.

Their younger siblings lived there too. The little brothers had just gone through potty training. Once, when the older girl heard her brother's door alarm go off in the middle of the night, she got up to help him, but he had already peed on the floor. She told jurors she saw the foster mother rub his face in the urine.

The older sister said she called her case worker at the time, Tim Von Haden, to tell him of the mistreatment.

"There was never anything ever done about it," the sister said. "He thought I was just lying because I wanted to go back and live with my mom."

All concerns were investigated, OCS contends, and none were found to be true. At the trial, the foster parents denied the accusations of mistreatment. They decided to stop being foster parents early this year after more than two decades, according to OCS.

Von Haden never visited the girls in the foster home, Kramer said. OCS policy requires monthly face-to-face meetings and home visits every other month.

OCS contends its workers were in regular contact with the girls and their family.

DAMAGED, BUT NO HELP

Early on, the state ensured proper care to the girls, Hopper, the psychologist, wrote. But the last time the girls regularly saw a therapist was in January 2002, even though psychiatric evaluations said they needed therapy, all the more so after they were taken from their mother once again in 2003, he said.

"I find that absence deeply troubling: Betrayed, abused, and abandoned, the girls were, if anything, more damaged the second time they came into OCS's custody and yet received nothing by way of additional support over the next three years of silent drift in foster care," Hopper wrote. A counselor might have recognized signs of mistreatment, he said.

The pain of sexual abuse was made much worse by the grandmother's denial of it and case workers' dismissal of other complaints, he said.

"Children can recover from almost any trauma if their pain, confusion, and accounts are heard, accepted and validated," Hopper wrote. When they are disbelieved, they begin to blame themselves.

"I just kept being called a liar," the older sister said. "So pretty much I just gave up."

Both sisters have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, their attorney said.

OCS maintains the girls got counseling at various times while in state custody.

Eventually, in 2006, the sisters were separated and sent to live with other relatives. OCS closed their case.

The younger sister went to live with her father, whom she barely knew, in Minnesota. She is back in Nikiski now. She's unemployed and working toward a high school equivalency diploma.

The older one went to live with an aunt in Washington. She also now lives in Nikiski with her fiance and her two children, a 2-year-old and an infant. She takes college classes and wants to be a pediatric nurse. She sees her three younger siblings daily. They were adopted together and their adoptive mother essentially became the older girl's mother too. She's the only person she trusts to baby-sit her kids. She's overprotective because of what she went through, she said.

The hardest thing about the trial, she said, was watching her younger sister undergo questioning about the sexual abuse. The sister had never before talked about it. They got through the ordeal together.

Asked last week whether children in state care are safer now than they were when the sisters were in state custody, OCS declined to answer.


Reach Lisa Demer at ldemer@adn.com or 257-4390.

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