Left in Harm's Way 

State Foster Agency Faces Another Lawsuit

A NEW LAWSUIT has been leveled at the state's Department of Human Services (DHS), after the agency removed a four-year-old girl from her parents' home in 1993 and placed her in a home with a convicted rapist. She endured years of rape from David Purcell, her grandmother's husband, before coming forward about the abuse in 1999, when she was 10 years old.

The victim, a woman known only as "B.D." in this week's suit, is claiming $5.25 million in damages from DHS and the two caseworkers (named "Doe I" and "Doe II" in the complaint) for their role in placing her in an abusive situation. Unfortunately, the storyline is starting to sound familiar.

Such screw-ups have happened before—this year the department settled out of court in a suit involving six special-needs infants and toddlers who were removed from a neglectful foster home. A DHS report on the incident found a "lack of ongoing assessment of the functioning of [the foster family]" and "lack of face-to-face contact by the foster care certifier, and insufficient documentation during the recertification process."

"We're making an effort to address deficiencies," says DHS spokesperson Gene Evans, citing a recent legislative approval for 130 more staff members and new rules that require certification workers to walk through all rooms of the foster home and perform unannounced visits. "These are kids that we have a responsibility for, and we've got to make sure they're safe and protected."

DHS isn't commenting on B.D.'s suit, and referred questions to Tony Green at the Department of Justice, who also did not comment on the specifics. But Green cautioned against comparing this case to previous ones, saying that the factual differences between cases are frequently more significant than the similarities.

Nevertheless, similarities are there, most notably the fact that children in both cases were put in harmful situations by the agency charged with protecting them. B.D.'s complaint against DHS says the two caseworkers had "constructive knowledge" about Purcell's past convictions, which included a 1980 conviction for raping his 14-year-old daughter and a 1987 conviction of rape and sodomy against a stepdaughter.

"They should have known," says Kelly Clark, the attorney representing B.D.

Clark has been representing abuse victims for the past 10 years, and while he's seen changes in private institutions like the Catholic Church, he says public systems haven't been subjected to the same kind of attention.

"If it has to be done because they're afraid of liability or afraid of bad publicity, I don't really care. I want them to do the right thing," Clark says.

The fact that B.D. came forward about the abuse is exceptional. According to Child Sexual Abuse Stops Here, an Oregon nonprofit, 88 percent of child abuse never gets reported. As for Purcell, he currently resides at Two Rivers Correctional Institution in Umatilla, serving time for his abuse of B.D. He's scheduled to stay there until 2049.

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