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Abuse victim wins $1 million settlement in lawsuit against state

Lisa Demer
Bob Hallinen

State caseworkers didn't see the honey bucket in the little boy's room or the lock on the outside of his bedroom door. When workers gave Patrick and Sherry Kelley a fifth child for adoption in July 2000, they never looked back.

A worried aunt flew up from Florida when that little boy was 7, went to the family's Anchorage home, and said she frantically tried to get someone in the state child protection system to listen to concerns about what she saw.

No one ever responded, said the aunt, Betsy Golan, who lives in Fort Lauderdale.

If they had paid attention, then maybe they could have stopped what happened when the Kelley family moved to Big Lake far out of public view. Instead the dysfunction only grew deeper: Children were hit with switches, shovels and metal pipes. They didn't go to school. The little boy suffered a fractured arm and serious burns.

The aunt's early concerns became a key element in a lawsuit that alleged the state Office of Children's Services failed that boy.

A decade after Alaska State Troopers rescued the five Kelley children and exposed the harsh world of the family's Big Lake compound, another chapter is closing.

The boy injured all those years ago this month won a $1 million settlement in a lawsuit against the state Office of Children's Services.

He's 20 now, a young man trying to make his own way. His mom named him Christian, the Kelleys called him Brandon and now he's on his third name, Thomas Joseph White.

He goes by T.J.

STATE: NO RED FLAGS

In the settlement this month, the state didn't admit any wrongdoing. The abuse at the Kelley house was revealed in 2004, three years after state oversight ended, said Christy Lawton, director of the Office of Children's Services. The state says it has no record of the aunt's complaints.

The Kelleys had glowing references and were considered excellent foster and adoptive parents until then, Lawton said in an email.

"The only lesson to be learned was that OCS does not have a crystal ball that will perfectly predict the future," she wrote.

Nothing changed as a result of the Kelley case but the system has evolved and improved since then for other reasons, she said. For instance, the agency in 2006 began emphasizing safety in a more comprehensive way, from the point it first encounters a family to when a case is closed. But workers remain overloaded, with an average of 20 families each when the target is 12, she said.

Both Kelleys were charged criminally in 2004 with multiple counts of mistreating the children. They eventually served time after pleading no-contest to reduced charges. Efforts to reach them were unsuccessful.

T.J. said he wants his story known to explain why he may seem a bit different, a guy without many close friends, who may be a little broken. He also wants to shed light so that other kids aren't double- neglected, first by parents who forsake them for drugs and then by the system that was supposed to protect them.

"They could have done a lot better, actually," T.J. said of the Office of Children's Services and its predecessor, the Division of Family and Youth Services.

State policy says families should be monitored for at least six months before an adoption is finalized. But in T.J.'s case, the state pushed for the adoption to be final in four months. The Kelleys were ill-equipped to handle four older and more challenging children: T.J., two stepsisters and a stepbrother, said T.J.'s lawyer, Mike Kramer. They were studied thoroughly only before they took in their first child, a healthy baby, he said.

T.J. is a big presence -- 6 feet, 9 inches tall -- a lanky kid wearing a backwards baseball cap and a Big Dipper Concessions T-shirt.

"They could have checked in on us at random times," T.J. said. "They could have looked in the background of all of us kids and seen that we looked like a troubled group."

Two aunts stepped up to adopt him when his own mother's drug addiction overwhelmed her but the state put T.J. with the Kelleys, where his step-siblings already were living.

"OCS deprived him of the only reliable adults in his life," Kramer wrote in an email.

Once the birth parents lost their rights, the entire extended family was cut off. An assistant attorney general advised OCS that T.J. and his step-siblings no longer had relatives, Kramer wrote. "Based on that opinion, TJ's aunts were pre-emptively disqualified from providing their nephew with what he needed most: love."

"It's like all these little things add up to this big mistake that they made," T.J. said.

HOPES AND SETBACKS

On a recent day T.J. was packing his things in a second floor room at Palmer's Alaska Choice Inn. He's moved a lot the last few years. This past winter he lived in a motor home behind the Wasilla IHOP.

Growing up there was lots of moving, too, to foster homes, group homes, the Kelleys. But he also experienced stretches of stability, two years with his great aunt when he was little and, after the rescue, a second adoption by a loving Valley family.

He's recently completed a welding certification program. On top of the TV in the motel room he displayed an orderly row of curved metal pieces from his welding test. He had a laundry basket full of tools. He wants to move to Orlando, Florida, for a 51-week automotive training program at the Universal Technical Institute branch there.

"The schooling would put me into a job," he said.

With a portion of the settlement going for lawyer fees and costs associated with bringing the case, T.J. said he will end up with around $600,000, a significant amount, but not enough to last his lifetime.

"I don't want to waste this money," he said. Most will be held in a bank trust and dispensed at key moments, he said, including at ages 25 and 30, and if he buys a house.

He and his fiance are expecting a baby in September. They met in high school but also know each other through church. Her father is a pastor.

Their plans to marry are on hold because of legal problems. T.J. said he was drinking with friends one night in February and got into trouble.

"It was stupid," he said.

He and two other guys were accused of damaging a stranger's car in the Wasilla Walmart parking lot , according to a police statement. Then they fled, with T.J. driving, the statement said. He's charged with drunken driving, minor consuming, minor in possession of alcohol and two felonies: criminal mischief and third-degree assault. He's on an ankle monitor and hoping to get the felonies reduced to misdemeanors, he said.

ROUGH START

The first time the state child protection system got a report that T.J. was in danger, it was 1993. He was two months old. His birth mother was addicted to cocaine, and the home was chaotic, said his lawyer, Kramer. She married another addict who brought his own three children into the family -- the same children later taken away by the state and also placed with the Kelleys.

T.J. remembers life with mom in Mountain View as fantastic.

"We had a blast," he said. He and his older stepbrother ran the streets, played in the woods, broke antennas off cars to use as swords.

But, Mike Hopper, a psychologist who evaluated T.J.'s history for the court case, said the children also saw drugs, violence and sexual activity. When the mother's home became too out of control, T.J.'s great aunt, Pam Ronning, took him in.

"I had him in hockey. I had him in soccer. I had him in T-ball," said Ronning, an engineer with the Municipality of Anchorage. "I don't know how it went from that to all this horrible stuff."

She advocated for him, she said, arguing that the state should cut off his parents' rights, and warning of problems when he was returned to his mother. She wrote to Gov. Tony Knowles, legislators, the old DFYS. But she couldn't get him the attention he needed.

When T.J. was 5, someone reported that the parents sold the food they had bought with the family's food stamps to buy crack. T.J.'s stepdad had just been pistol-whipped in a home invasion, according to Kramer.

Still, the state didn't remove him for another two months.

'NOTHING WILL BE NORMAL'

By the time the state took him away for good in July 1999, authorities had received 26 reports that he was at risk of being hurt, many of which related to the parents' addiction, Kramer said. Many weren't even investigated. At the time, DFYS was overloaded and workers were allowed to set aside reports that seemed minor. The agency no longer operates that way.

T.J. went to live with his great aunt, Ronning, again. Around Christmas 1999, he was visiting the Kelleys, where his step-siblings already lived. Sherry Kelley called to arrange a pickup and said Ronning's voice sounded slurred like she had been drinking, Kramer said.

No one investigated but the state took him from his aunt and put him in a group shelter, the lawyer said. He was 6 years old.

Another aunt, Betsy Golan, then stepped up and said she wanted to raise T.J. The plan was for him to move in with her and her husband in July 2000 at their Fort Lauderdale home.

Golan gave birth to her own son July 3 of that year. Her baby had serious medical issues and was put into intensive care. She said she asked the state to delay sending T.J. for a week or two.

But the note put in T.J.'s file that July 28 said she had changed her mind.

"I beat myself up about it every single day," Golan said. "Nothing will ever be normal. I can't take it back."

On July 31, 2000, DFYS put T.J. with the Kelleys, then living in Anchorage. The state agreed to monthly adoption payments. That's common in adoptions of high-needs children who have been in state custody. State troopers reported in 2004 that Kelleys received $3,400 a month in adoption subsidies for all the kids. Patrick worked in landscaping.

That December, the fast-track adoption was complete. T.J., now 7, belonged to the Kelleys.

Lawton said the Kelleys were doing an excellent job with their first four adopted children so the state had good cause to ensure T.J. was made a permanent part of the family.

"We now know that an additional two-month wait would have given us two more months of a glowing record caring for children," she wrote.

HILLSIDE HOME

At first, life in the Kelleys' Hillside house was happy, T. J. said. He remembers playing basketball and street hockey with the neighbors, a young couple.

But then the kids were told they couldn't play outside anymore. Furniture was removed from bedrooms. Locks were put on the bedroom doors. T.J. doesn't know what happened.

"Us kids thought it was our fault," he said.

His aunts were worried. Officially, they were cut off, but they found out where he lived. Golan flew up from Fort Lauderdale in May 2001 and went to the Kelley house.

"All the kids ran to the door," she said.

Sherry Kelley didn't like being surprised and didn't invite her in. She met with T.J., Sherry Kelley and the other kids at a McDonald's a couple days later. Finally, Golan and her husband at the time, Brandon Wynn, who worked as a police officer, were allowed into the home.

That's when Golan saw the locks on the outside of the doors, the bucket-for-a-bathroom in the corner of T.J.'s bedroom and a rope on another child's bunk bed.

"It wasn't like a little boy's room with toys and shoes and magazines or comics," Golan said in a recent interview. "It was like somewhere very very very frightening."

Her husband posed the children in front of the disturbing elements in the guise of taking pictures. Golan asked if she could take her nephew out for a milkshake. Sherry Kelley told her only if she left her infant son at the house. She couldn't do that. They left without T.J.

"I would have taken him straight to the police," Golan said.

She said she called DFYS and waited in the lobby there to talk to someone. But no one called her back. No one stepped into the lobby to hear her story.

State officials say they have no record of those attempts. The aunt should have called police if she was so concerned, Lawton said.

Soon the Kelley family would become even more isolated.

BIG LAKE COMPOUND

When they moved to the family compound near Big Lake, the children were put to work, T.J. said. They didn't go to school and the Kelleys soon gave up trying to home school them, he said. T.J. said he was pulled from school in the second grade after he accidentally gave a child a bloody nose.

"No matter what we said, we were just constantly getting beat," he said. "At first it started out with belts and switches and hands and whatnot. When we moved out to Big Lake, it was logs, metal pipes, shovels, anything they could get their hands on."

Sherry Kelley was the main disciplinarian but Patrick beat them too, T.J. said. Their adoptive grandparents -- Sherry's parents -- lived next door but troopers say they didn't protect the children.

Only rarely were the four older children allowed to sleep in the house, T.J. said. They slept where they could, T.J. said, outdoors under tarps, sometimes in stripped-out junk vans.

Once he soiled his Carhartts and was told to sleep outside. Patrick Kelley went out too. They lit kerosene lanterns. It was winter -- Valentine's Day 2004 -- so T.J. made a fire and slept beside it. He woke up with his clothes on fire. Patrick Kelley threw snow on him to put it out, he said.

He suffered third-degree burns over much of his body, Kramer said. T.J. has scars from the shins to his stomach. The Kelleys poured rubbing alcohol on the burns to fight infection but didn't take him to a doctor.

As the burns were healing, T.J. said, he felt something moving and checked his legs. He had been sleeping outdoors. Maggots had infested his wounds. He told Sherry and said the parents started scrubbing his wounds with a bristle brush.

One winter day after that, he was stacking firewood. His glove had a hole in one finger where one of their dogs had chewed through.

"It just got colder and colder," T.J. said. Pretty soon he couldn't feel his pointer finger. He lost the tip of it to frostbite.

Another time, his adoptive mother hit him in the face with a shovel, knocking out a tooth, his sisters later told troopers.

He remembers eating dog food but not regular meals. Sometimes the boys would be shown what he called "tease food" -- the meal that they would have gotten to eat if they only had worked harder.

THE RESCUE

Sherry's parents lived next door. In July 2004, her father, George Long, thought things were getting out of control and called troopers. He told troopers that if he hadn't called, T.J. might have died.

With troopers on the way, Sherry Kelly rounded up T.J. and the youngest child in the family van. But getting in, Sherry hit him repeatedly with a metal pipe, the trooper investigation found. His arm swelled to twice the normal size. They headed to Walmart but T.J. said he couldn't go in the store. His injured arm would call attention.

Sherry came out with some clothes and a rare treat: gummy worms. He was so excited. But he couldn't open the package because of his injured arm. She threw the gummy worms out the window, T.J. said.

Back at home, Sherry gave him the clothes to replace his old sweatpants. Troopers returned. She told him to run. He hid under a chicken coop in the woods. Troopers found him there.

He was 10 years old.

T.J. spent the next three weeks in the hospital, undergoing skin grafts and treatment for malnourishment. The hospital stay was bliss.

"I got food and a bed and a TV, people to see and talk to," he said.

One of Sherry Kelley's sisters took the children in after that, but things disintegrated there too.

At age 12, T.J. moved in with a new foster family in the Valley, the Whites. Life improved. He built forts. He went halibut fishing. He played football and ran track at Palmer High. He was almost 16 when the Whites adopted him. He graduated high school in 2012 though he doesn't think he ever caught up completely. He could barely read when troopers rescued him from the Kelleys.

Patrick and Sherry Kelley between them faced 92 counts of abuse, neglect, kidnapping and child endangerment for their treatment of the children. The charges were whittled down in a plea deal to felony assault and criminal nonsupport against Sherry and felony child endangerment against Patrick.

They each served 17 months.

George Long and his wife, Shirley, the children's grandmother, were charged with mistreating the children as well. Prosecutors dismissed most charges and a jury found them not guilty of failing to report the abuse. George Long was convicted of misdemeanor assault for chaining T.J. to a dog run. He served a few months.

T.J. has driven by the old compound. He said Sherry seems to live there. He's seen Patrick around but hasn't talked to him. He keeps up with the other four children. The youngest is in high school. Two of the older ones have their own children already.

Now T.J. is preparing to be a young father too. He's nervous.

"I think I can handle it the right way," he said. "I know how I would have wanted to be treated."

Reach Lisa Demer at ldemer@adn.com or 257-4390. Reporter Zaz Hollander contributed to this story.

 


By LISA DEMER
ldemer@adn.com