It’s taken more than two years and hundreds of thousands of records, but nine medically fragile children who were once wards of the Oregon Department of Human Services and entrusted to its foster care program, will share a $15 million settlement reached Dec. 17 at the U.S. District Court in Eugene.
Steven Rizzo, of the Portland law firm of Rizzo Mattingly Bosworth PC, which originally sought $28 million on behalf of the children who were abused while under DHS purview, said the state agency made the settlement offer, subject to court approval, but did not admit to negligence.
The lawsuit was filed in June 2013 after James Earl Mooney, a former Salem resident, pleaded guilty in 2012 to five counts of first-degree sodomy of medically fragile children, ages 48 hours to 3 years, who had disabilities or other special needs. Mooney was sentenced to 50 years in the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution for crimes that included sodomizing an 18-month-old foster baby in her car seat while his wife attended a doctor’s appointment with another foster child. His earliest release date is June 20, 2061.
Rizzo, attorney for the unnamed minor plaintiffs, alleged that DHS and at least 21 of its current or former, named and unnamed employees were negligent and created dangerous living conditions for children who were wards of the court while in DHS custody. All of the nine children have since been adopted or returned to their natural parents.
In the lawsuit, Rizzo alleged that in 2007, DHS, its supervisors, certifiers and caseworkers were responsible for initially certifying Mooney and his then wife to become a DHS-certified family. The agency placed dozens of children in the Mooney home, and it was recertified in 2008 and again in 2010, the agency confirms. Rizzo’s case argued that while the minor children were in the legal and physical custody of the DHS, it was duty-bound to protect their health, safety and well being.
The suit further alleged that DHS failed to conduct an adequate background investigation, failed to conduct a comprehensive inquiry into Mooney’s history and family dynamics, and failed to request or require the Mooneys to provide copies of medical reports. It said DHS was negligent in failing to conduct adequate fitness determinations for Mooney and his wife, and that it failed to obtain or review other criminal records, and adequately weigh Mooney’s history of potentially disqualifying (for foster-parent status) crimes.
The complaint against DHS points out that Mooney was raised in a dysfunctional family, and had watched his father act incestuously with his adolescent sister. It also contended that Mooney molested infants in the family’s in-home day care, and engaged in bestiality with dogs and cats.
This negligence, Rizzo said, was a substantial factor in causing the injuries and damages suffered by the plaintiffs.
Monday, DHS Interim Director Clyde Saiki said in a prepared statement that DHS had discovered that there were errors with regard to the certification and recertification of Mooney’s home, and had agreed to the settlement.
“DHS knows, understands, and admits responsibility for the damages suffered by these innocent victims,” Saiki said. “The settlement reflects the agency’s accountability for failing to ensure the safety of these children in its care.”
“We believe the settlement is reasonable, and one of the largest, if not the largest, settlements the agency has had to pay,” Rizzo said. “But we endured a lengthy series of motions and discovery disputes since we filed,” Rizzo said.
The case started in front of District Court Judge John Acosta in U.S. District Court in Portland, and the settlement was accepted by federal Judge Michael McShane in Eugene.
“We feel we achieved a successful outcome for the families,” Rizzo said. “These same families are hopeful DHS will take the preventative measures necessary to make sure this doesn’t happen to another child.”
In November, Gov. Kate Brown ordered an independent review of the child welfare practices at the state Department of Human Services. The state also plans to hire independent third-party to investigate problems at DHS’s child welfare program. The state’s advisory committee will focus on oversight and licensing, cultural responsiveness, abuse and neglect investigations, accountability within the agency and financial stability of foster care providers.