Torture: The state fails a young girl

Warnings went unheeded, subjecting a foster child to a decade of abuse and blindness in one eye

June 21, 2007 

It took 10 years for the state of Washington to decide Chornice Lewis was an unfit foster mother.

The price of official inertia was a young girl's vision.

Lewis, 33, is awaiting trial on two charges of assault, including torture. Her plea: not guilty.

The victim: her claimed cousin and foster daughter, now 16, who lived with Lewis for a decade in Tacoma and South King County.

State records show the girl was abused for years: beaten, burned, locked in a storage closet and a car trunk, and partially blinded with hypodermic needles.

Her torment was no secret.

Hundreds of pages of investigative files show teachers, neighbors and police officers repeatedly warned foster care workers about the girl's suspicious injuries and her dubious denials of mistreatment.

Q: What happened at home to cause your face to get hurt?

A: It didn't happen at home.

Q: Your teacher said that you came in that morning with your face hurt.

A: I get infections in my eyes and they swell up.

Q: Why did you tell your teacher and the nurse that you were sleepwalking at home and walked into a wall?

A: (No answer.)

Q: Who gave you a bad touch at home?

A: No one.

— excerpt from victim's interview with Federal Way police, Sept. 28, 2001

She was small for her age, according to those who saw her. Scrawny, she always wore the same grubby clothes to school: a wrinkled white shirt, pants that were too big, and battered shoes. Her hair was pulled back in a rude bun. Her eyes, often black and swollen, tilted toward the ground. She rarely spoke, and seemed to have no friends.

"I feel sick about it," said Lana Wainscott, a counselor at Sequoia Middle School in Kent and one of many adults who complained to the state that the girl was being hurt.

"It's one of those things where you know," Wainscott said in a recent interview. "And you just keep telling them and telling them — and they keep saying, "We don't have enough evidence.'"

The warnings — at least 16 recorded over five years, records show — were dismissed, the official complaints discounted.

Instead, state workers trusted Chornice Lewis — a 5-foot-4, 180-pound woman with a short temper, a bullying manner and a talent for gaming the social service system. Her attorney, Marvin McCoy, declined to let Lewis be interviewed for this story. Information about her activities comes from various public records, which show she received more than $101,000 in state foster care payments between 1997 and 2006, when she had custody of the girl.

Her total take in taxpayer dollars could be greater. She was under investigation for welfare fraud before her arrest. The state won't reveal how much welfare money Lewis might have pocketed, but an investigator's report, written after the assault charges were filed, noted that Lewis and her relatives "appear to move often from apartment to apartment, maintain several residences in each other's names, and collect income from the government via elaborate scams and falsified information."

While Lewis racked up licensing complaints linked to three foster children, she moved the girl from school to school six times in five years, withdrawing her and re-enrolling her elsewhere when abuse allegations surfaced, kinking the flow of information to the state.

Lewis made sure she was the sole source of knowledge about the girl's well-being, and repeatedly characterized the child as a liar and a thief. Teachers and caregivers saw no signs of such behavior, and said so, but state workers took Lewis at her word. A line of DSHS social workers and investigators believed the girl, who blamed her injuries on household stumbles and mysterious allergies.

Lewis coached her, the victim later told police — taught her what to say and threatened her with more abuse if she didn't go along. The girl was never removed from Lewis' home, never given a chance to tell her story without the threat of retribution.

Two of her foster siblings — Lewis' biological children — dutifully denied the girl was being abused whenever they were asked, even after their mother's arrest.

According to allegations in state records, the siblings also served as scouts, watching the girl at the multiple schools she attended. If a teacher questioned the girl about black eyes, or a state social worker talked to her at school, Lewis always knew. Even if the girl lied as instructed, she was beaten, she said.

The state failed the girl.

The state admits it.

"A system breakdown" was the phrase leaders of the Department of Social and Health Services used in an internal review of the case, completed in February 2007. As a result, DSHS has reassigned and retrained workers. Agency leaders say they have revised their administrative practices.

The failure was total, the case review states. Foster care workers and local courts who were supposed to protect the girl repeatedly failed to do the right thing, failed to take a risk, to tear away the tissue of deceit.

"We should have acted more quickly," said Mike Tornquist, director of the Division of Licensed Resources, a subset of DSHS. "Usually we take more severe action — and we should have."

'I GAVE HER MISMATCHED FLIP-FLOPS'

Q: Do you recall being struck with an umbrella?

A: Yeah, it was during Christmastime.

Q: Okay.

A: We were wrapping presents and my cousin (Lewis) asked me to get her some flip-flops, and it was dark, and so I was going to the back, picking out flip-flops and she said okay, okay, just get any ones, but I didn't know I gave her mismatched flip-flops and she got back in the door um, she took an umbrella and started hitting me in my face.

Q: How did she, with the pointy end or the handle end?

A: With the handle end.

Q: Okay. And what was she saying when she struck you with that?

A: "Don't ever give me mismatched shoes again. You knew what you were doing."

Q: Okay. Does she get angry a lot?

A: Kind of.

Q: Okay. And how many times did she hit you with that umbrella on your face?

A: Like five or six.

Q: Five or six times. Were you crying?

A: Yeah.

Q: Did you ask her to stop hitting you?

A: No.

— excerpt from victim's interview with Federal Way police, Jan. 10, 2006

A NO-WIN PROPOSITION

Chornice Lewis' trial, originally scheduled for last August, is on hold while she faces a test of mental competence — a psychological evaluation to determine her fitness for prosecution. The results, delayed for several months, could arrive Monday at a scheduled competency hearing.

For the past few months, Lewis has been a resident of Western State Hospital. Before her commitment, court records show she accused the King County Jail chaplain of sending her pornographic messages and a peanut butter sandwich wrapped in rope to hang herself.

The evaluation is a no-win proposition for the state.

If Lewis is found competent to stand trial, prosecutors will introduce evidence showing years of abuse and neglect  — dismissed by foster care workers and investigators who should have known better, according to the DSHS internal review.

If Lewis is ruled incompetent, the outlook is equally bleak: a foster mother deemed mentally unfit for prosecution, nonetheless licensed by the state for a decade.

Lewis' attorney, public defender Marvin McCoy, knows his job won't be easy.

"The allegations are pretty outrageous," he said. "It just sounds gory as heck — almost unbelievable."

Belief in blood ties fogged the state's vision, DSHS leaders say. State records show the girl was 4 when her mother, ruined by drugs, abandoned her in 1995. Lewis, then 22, presented herself in court as the girl's cousin and offered to take in the girl and her siblings, including a younger brother.

The prospect of a new home with a seemingly caring family member made sense to the state. Social workers clung to the idea for years.

"A mindset and attitude about this case appeared to develop early on that asked less of the caregivers because they were relatives," DSHS leaders concluded in 2007.

The mind-set had another flaw: State leaders now say they're not even sure the girl and Lewis are related.

AN UNNOTICED ALIAS

From the beginning, Lewis left a suspicious paper trail in state records. When she filed her first application for a foster home license in 1997, she used one of her aliases as a character reference.

The reference name was Keshia Harris, who answered a form letter from the state in February 1997, praising Lewis' parenting skills.

"She's good with all ages kids," the letter said.

The state approved the license two months later, unaware of Lewis' multiple names. Keshia Harris is one of them.

The name appears in the arrest warrant for Lewis and the charges filed against her in King County Superior Court. It shows up elsewhere, in older public records associated with Lewis' former addresses.

At the time of her arrest, records suggest she still was using the name informally. During interviews with police and state workers, the girl sometimes referred to her foster mother as "Cousin Keshia."

In April 2007, The News Tribune pointed out the alias to DSHS leaders, who said they hadn't noticed it.

"If we realized that at the time, then it would have raised a red flag," Tornquist said. "It's unfortunate that we didn't have her aliases."

Lewis' first stint as a foster parent in Washington lasted a few months. A September 1997 entry in state records noted she moved to California. She didn't tell the state she was leaving. It's unclear whether the victim traveled with her, but records indicate she had lived with Lewis continuously since 1995.

"There is evidence that (Lewis) spent the foster child's clothing voucher on personal items," the entry added.

BACK IN TOWN

Lewis resurfaced in Washington in 1998, records show. She reapplied for her foster home license in January 2000, when she was living in Tacoma. On the application form, Lewis described her approach to discipline in a handwritten statement. The verbatim transcript:


4838 E. Rimrock St., Tacoma (2000)

"Basicly you talk listen to the child then you if that doesn't work take a special game or toy away let them no we have rule's and every must follow them," she wrote.

Within weeks, the state received the first of many complaints about Lewis' treatment of children.

A neighbor called Child Protective Services to say four children were being locked outside all day. They ranged in age from 10 months to 12 years. The older ones kept an eye on the baby, the neighbor said.

Lewis had three other children of her own. The neighbor said they were treated differently — allowed inside and given Easter baskets. The children who got baskets taunted those who didn't, the neighbor said.

The other four were left outside from morning until evening, regardless of weather, the neighbor said.

"Referrer likens the treatment that the children on the porch receive to that of how a person would treat a pet," the report stated, adding that Lewis got angry when she saw neighbors give the children food.

When a CPS investigator interviewed Lewis about the complaint, she said her neighbor was a racist, retaliating because of a feud. The investigator, Karl Snyder, found the explanation "plausible."

A second complaint followed in July 2000. The report came from an unidentified teenager living in the home — not the victim cited in the 2006 charges, but another foster child, a runaway whose name is redacted in the documents. Lewis typically had two to three foster children living with her at any one time.

There wasn't enough food in the house, the teen said. Lewis' boyfriend, recently released from prison, had moved in, and the children had been sent to live with Lewis' mother, an invalid.

While at the mother's house, the teenager slept on a counter in the bathroom, the report said. She looked after the younger children, cooked meals, shopped and changed the older woman's urine bag.

The youth also said Lewis falsely claimed money from the state for damaged household items.

State workers wanted to check the report with Lewis, but they had a hard time. One worker suspected Lewis was screening her calls.

"Inaccessibility to workers by phone seems to be a pattern with Ms. Lewis," social worker Doug Dickenson wrote. "I believe it needs to be addressed."

When state workers reached Lewis, she said the teen was a constant problem — a thief and a liar who had threatened Lewis with a knife. Lewis also accused a state social worker of stealing money and items from her home. Such countercharges became a pattern in the years to come.

The state ruled that the complaints from May and July were invalid. Still, workers wrote a corrective plan for the Lewis home that required her to address foster licensing violations and attend parenting classes. Lewis agreed to the plan and signed it.


Wildwood Elementary School, Federal Way (2001)

Around the same time, state investigators noticed a child living in Lewis' home who hadn't been mentioned in foster licensing paperwork — a 9-year-old girl Lewis identified as her cousin. Her presence was duly recorded.

AT WILDWOOD ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

Over the course of six months, Lewis had renewed her foster care license, generated a pair of complaints, been warned against future violations and signed a plan to prevent them.

It made little difference. After signing the plan, Lewis moved again, and again did not notify the state. In late 2000, after the state sent a warning letter, Lewis reapplied for her foster care license — this time from an address in Auburn.

A new complaint surfaced in spring 2001. It revolved around Lewis' 9-year-old cousin — the same girl state workers had discovered a few months earlier.

She was a student at Wildwood Elementary School in Federal Way. On March 28, 2001, she came to school with a knot on her forehead. It was swollen, almost closing the girl's eyes.

Teachers, the school nurse and Principal Thomas Capp asked what happened. The girl said she sleepwalked into a door.

Capp and the nurse thought the girl needed to see a doctor. They called Lewis, who came and took the girl to St. Francis Hospital. Capp also called CPS.


30819 124th Ave. S.E., Auburn (2001)

CPS investigator Cleveland King filed a report six days later, debunking the complaint. Another student at the school had attacked the girl, King wrote, and Federal Way police were considering a possible assault charge against the other child.

That appeared to settle the matter. A fight at school couldn't be Lewis' fault. The state complaint file was closed, though police hadn't finished their investigation.

Results of that inquiry don't appear in state records, but The News Tribune obtained the 2001 case report from the City of Federal Way.

It shows that police found discrepancies in the girl's statements and repeatedly tried to alert the state, to no avail. Multiple phone messages were ignored for six months, and a police detective's worries were brushed off.

CONFLICTING REPORTS

The Federal Way report shows police interviewed the girl at the hospital the day she was treated for her head injury. Lewis stood nearby.

Though the girl had told school officials she was sleepwalking, she told a police officer another child on the playground hit her in the face with a stick, and pushed her to the ground. That was how she hit her head, she claimed.

The girl's cousin, Lewis' biological daughter, also attended Wildwood and was about the same age as the girl. The cousin told the officer she saw the playground incident.

Both children identified the attacker — another 10-year-old girl.

The next day, police detective Sandy Templeton picked up the case and talked to Lewis, who was annoyed.

"Lewis was somewhat rude and uncooperative," Templeton wrote. "She wanted to know why I was questioning her about (the girl's) injuries and making her feel like she (Lewis) was being investigated."

Templeton also interviewed state social worker Beulah Mills, who said Lewis was a good caregiver.

Weeks after the state had shelved the complaint, Templeton was still working on the case. She gathered incident reports from Wildwood, and talked to a concerned school official who said the girl's story of a playground assault didn't sound right.

The stories didn't match. The school's reports said the girl was already injured when she arrived that morning. The child accused of attacking her was with a teacher when the assault supposedly occurred.

The girl wasn't attending Wildwood any more — she'd been transferred.

Templeton left a voice-mail message for Mills. She didn't call back. Templeton kept trying to reach Mills for five months. The social worker didn't respond.

On Sept. 28, 2001, Templeton described her difficulties in a written report.

"Over the past few months I have left messages for Ms. Mills to return my call, to update her on the school's investigation and to try to locate (the girl)," she wrote. "Ms. Mills has not returned any of my calls to date."

THE TRUTH

Also on Sept. 28, Templeton interviewed the girl after finding her at Hazelwood Elementary School in Auburn.

The detective asked what was better — the truth or a lie.

"Truth," the girl said.

Q: Do you remember going to Wildwood Elementary School in Federal Way?


Hazelwood Elementary School, Auburn (2001)

A: Yes.

Q: Why did you stop going there?

A: Because something bad happened to my face.

Q: Tell me all about that.

A: (Looks down and doesn't say anything for approximately 30 seconds.) I don't feel comfortable.

Q: How come?

A: (No answer.)

Q: Did someone tell you not to tell?

A: No.

Q: Why aren't you comfortable?

A: Cause it makes me sad.

— excerpt from victim's interview with Federal Way police, Sept. 29, 2001

Templeton asked the girl why she told teachers she was sleepwalking. The girl didn't answer.

Her face was already hurt when she came to school that morning, Templeton explained. That was what her teacher said.


Mark Twain Elementary School, Federal Way (2001)

The girl said she sometimes got infections that made her eyes swell up.

No one at home hit her, she said. Everything she said was the truth.

Three days after Templeton's interview, the girl was withdrawn from Hazelwood and transferred to Mark Twain Elementary School in Federal Way — her third school in eight months.

'THE CASE IS CLOSED'

By mid-October, Templeton was tired of waiting for Mills, and called the social worker's boss.

Mills called back. Templeton relayed the findings.

"I told her that I was concerned about the school's investigation and the inconsistencies in my interview with (the girl)," Templeton wrote in her report. "Ms. Mills told me there had been no further reports to CPS about this family since this one."

The girl had mentioned a chronic infection that caused her eyes to swell, Templeton said. Mills said she would recommend an eye examination for the child.

"I told (Mills) that I would fax her my report and the school's report for her information," Templeton wrote. "The case is closed. No crime can be proven at this time."

Two years passed. No complaints surfaced. The girl turned 11, then 12. Lewis moved and didn't tell the state at first. She renewed her foster care license at the new address after receiving a certified letter. Her application was approved.

AT TOTEM MIDDLE SCHOOL


Totem Junior High/Middle School, Kent (2003)

By fall 2003, the girl was enrolled at Totem Middle School in Kent.

A few weeks after the school year began, two teachers told counselor Dave Blocki that they were worried about the girl: She had a gouge on her cheek and a swollen, bloodshot eye.

She always looked unkempt. Her hair, clothes and nails were dirty. There were worries about her foster mother. An employee at the school had heard Lewis call the girl "that no-good."


1216 S. 237th Lane, Des Moines (2003)

The girl told teachers her baby cousin had scratched her on the cheek. Her eye was red because of pinkeye, she said.

The school nurse examined the girl. It didn't look like pinkeye, the nurse thought. Blocki called CPS.

The girl's answers to questions sounded scripted, he said in his report.

She said she lived in two different apartment complexes. She didn't know her phone number. No, her foster mother did not mistreat her or call her names. Yes, she felt safe in her house.

A CPS investigator, Irena Fajardo, interviewed Lewis and her other children.

Everyone said the baby had scratched the girl. Lewis said the girl had problems with lying and stealing. The family had prayed with their pastor about it.

Fajardo noted that Lewis had moved again — to Des Moines this time, without informing the state. Lewis said she'd filed the paperwork and someone must have missed it.

Five days after the complaint from Totem was filed, state records show Lewis withdrew the girl from the school. She was transferred to Sequoia Middle School in Kent — her fifth school in two years.

The complaint to CPS was ruled unfounded.

One day later, another complaint arrived. The name is redacted in state records, but it came from someone at Totem.

The girl didn't want to leave the school, the report said. When told about her withdrawal, she asked why she had to leave.

The complaint said the girl wore the same ill-fitting clothes to school every day, including a white shirt. She asked a teacher for another shirt. The girl said it had to be the same kind of shirt — otherwise, her cousin, who also attended Totem, would find out and tell Lewis.

The cousin, Lewis' biological daughter, regularly came to school with nice clothes and styled hair, the complaint added.

Seeing no reason to change its recent findings, the state ruled the complaint invalid.

Five times between 2000 and 2003, Lewis had foiled or sidestepped CPS complaints from neighbors and caregivers who tried to intervene on the girl's behalf. Lewis had moved at least four times without telling the state, been forgiven for each violation and enrolled the girl in five schools along the way.

Two more years would pass and more complaints would follow before the state took action.

A WINTER COAT

State records show Lewis used three tactics to muddle the foster care system and neutralize accusations of abuse:

• Painting the girl as a problem child prone to lies and thievery.

• Accusing state workers of persecution.

• Intimidating caregivers with false charges of deceit and sexual misconduct.

All three worked to perfection in late 2003 and 2004, as Lewis tied educators and social workers in knots.

A chain of troubling incidents started when Gail Mork, family advocate for Sequoia Middle School, gave the seemingly needy girl a winter coat and never saw it again.


Sequoia Middle School, Kent (2004)

Mork's kindness drew unexpected venom. Lewis disapproved of the gift, saying the girl was a liar and didn't need a coat. There was more — supposedly, the girl wrote an entry in her diary, saying Mork had made her uncomfortable, "hugging her sometimes."

Mork denied the accusation. Lewis later told Mork the girl was "a manipulative liar," and that the hugging story was made up.

Mork saw the girl a few more times at Sequoia, but kept her distance. The girl waved shyly. She looked cold and unhappy.

Months later, a new CPS complaint came from the girl's younger brother, who had lived with Lewis for a time but moved to a new foster home by fall 2004. The boy told a state social worker he and his sister had been locked in the trunk of Lewis' car during family trips.

The social worker, John Gunn, interviewed the girl at school. Aware of her history of denials, he did not ask about the trunk incident directly. Instead, he waited to see whether she would volunteer it. She did not.

When the interview was finished, the girl asked Gunn if he intended to call her foster mother. Gunn said yes. The girl went to the school office and called home, according to his report.

Again, state workers reviewed the history of the Lewis foster home. It showed a fistful of complaints, every one unfounded. The new complaint was closed as well.

'I DON'T REMEMBER'

Sequoia Middle School had a holiday tradition — a giving tree. Students received gifts based on random drawings. In mid-December 2004, school counselor Lana Wainscott was one of the staff members passing out presents when the girl's name was drawn.

On Dec. 17, state records say an unnamed teacher overheard Lewis and the girl talking in the school parking lot. The girl was trying to explain how she got the present.

"Who is this Ms. Wainscott and why would she care about your black ass, anyway?" Lewis said.

The girl missed the first week of school after the holiday break. On Jan. 10, 2005, she came to the school counseling office and asked Wainscott for her homework. Wainscott's notes of the conversation and subsequent incidents appear in state records.

The girl had a black eye. Wainscott asked why she'd missed a week.

The girl looked down, hesitated, and said, "I had pinkeye, a sore throat and some other things."

Two days later, Lewis called Wainscott with a rant. The girl had been lying at school, pretending she needed Christmas presents.

Not true, Wainscott said, and explained the random gift drawing.

Lewis said other kids at school were saying the girl had black eyes when she didn't — it was a skin condition that required prescription medication. Lewis wanted Wainscott to tell teachers so the gossip would stop.

A little later, Wainscott saw the girl in the cafeteria. The inside of her ear was caked with dried blood. Wainscott asked what happened. The girl looked down and didn't answer.

Wainscott asked again and said the ear looked like it hurt. The girl wouldn't meet her eyes.

"I don't remember," she said.

The girl's cousin — Lewis' biological daughter — sat nearby, watching.

Wainscott went back to her office and filed a CPS report.

That afternoon, Gunn, the social worker, met Lewis at her home for a previously scheduled interview. Gunn didn't know about the new complaint yet, state records show.

Lewis gave Gunn some news: The girl, now 13, had been to the doctor a few days earlier for an eye examination. It also turned up a diagnosis of oral gonorrhea. Lewis said she was trying to keep the girl under control, but it wasn't easy.

OBSCENE MESSAGES

The next day — Jan. 13 — brought a confusing mass of information:

• CPS received Wainscott's report.

• Gunn gave his supervisors an account of his interview with Lewis and the supposed medical diagnosis.

• The girl did not come to school.

• An attendance secretary at the school received an obscene voice-mail message.

The caller identified herself as the girl. In profane terms, she said she wasn't coming to school because she was with her boyfriend.

"And tell Ms. Wainscott to stay away from me because she tried to touch my breasts and molest me and I am calling the cops on her," the message added.

Wainscott listened to the recording in disbelief. Students never called to tell on themselves for skipping. The call made no sense.

Either the call came from someone else, or the girl was forced to make it, Wainscott thought. The message and the tone contradicted everything she knew about the child.

"NO one has witnessed any form of disrespectful behavior out of her — ever," Wainscott wrote in a report of the incident, later sent to CPS. "This is in direct contrast to the picture Chornice has painted of her, telling us she is a liar, a thief and a difficult child. She never speaks at school and doesn't have one single friend. She is very timid and appears to be fearful of adults."

Wainscott reported the call to CPS.

More confusing information emerged over the next few days — all of it given to CPS. The girl gave multiple reasons for her bloody ear: running into a door, a piercing gone bad, a burn from a curling iron.

A school nurse asked Lewis for medical records to confirm reports of the girl's eye condition and the alleged oral gonorrhea. The records never came. Instead, Lewis called the school and said the girl was being withdrawn.

At some point in late January 2005 — the records give conflicting dates — Lewis came to the school with the girl in tow.

"You should be ashamed of the way you treated these teachers," Lewis told the girl. "You owe them an apology."

In her report of the encounter, Wainscott she didn't know what Lewis was talking about. The girl had always been "a perfect angel at school," she wrote.

She and another staffer also noticed the girl had a new injury: a split lip.

Wainscott summed up her impressions in a two-page letter to CPS.

"Over the course of the last two years I have grown increasingly concerned about (the girl's) welfare," Wainscott wrote. "She is so withdrawn and does not talk to anyone. I strongly believe that this girl has been told something will happen to her if she tells the school any personal information."

State workers started a new investigation. They checked medical records, and found no signs of a diagnosis of oral gonorrhea.

On Jan. 21, Gunn got an obscene voice mail. The caller claimed to be the girl — she said she was having sex with her boyfriend, she didn't have to go to school, and the social worker couldn't do anything about it.

'A HISTORY OF LYING'

Gunn wasn't operating in a vacuum. By now, the state had eight years of records on Lewis. Each new complaint revealed the same history:

• Allegations of child abuse and neglect.

• Observed injuries.

• Unannounced address changes.

• Concerns from police, neighbors and school personnel.

• Withdrawals from school and enrollments elsewhere whenever trouble arose.

• Denial of abuse by the girl, who was always interviewed in Lewis' presence, or returned to Lewis after she spoke to state workers.

• A decision to dismiss the complaint.

Despite that historical backdrop, state workers once more chose to believe Chornice Lewis. Statements preserved in state case reports show Gunn and foster care worker Laticia Williams thought the girl was a liar.


Pacific Middle School, Des Moines (2005)

As state workers prepared to investigate the complaints from Sequoia Middle School, Williams wrote an e-mail to co-workers, warning them of the girl's "previous history of generating false allegations." A report from the assigned CPS investigator, Mark Widaman, describes a conversation with Gunn, who said the girl had "a history of lying."

Widaman interviewed the girl Jan. 25. She was staying with Lewis' mother, Rose Johnson.

The girl said she wasn't mistreated at home. She liked it at home. She liked Lewis. She felt safe at home. All the old allegations were untrue. Widaman saw the other children, who looked fine.

He interviewed Lewis, who also denied all the allegations.

Lewis cried. She said she was tired of the accusations. The child was such a burden, such a liar. Maybe she wouldn't take care of the girl anymore. Maybe the state could take her.

On Jan. 31, Lewis enrolled the girl at Pacific Middle School in Des Moines — her sixth school in five years, according to state records.

School officials, learning fragments of the girl's history, hesitated at first. Registrar Kathi Dewey was suspicious, according to notes filed by Widaman.

"She said her "gut' says there is abuse/neglect in the home," Widaman wrote.

Within a few days, Widaman decided to close the complaint. Lewis had denied the allegations. So had the girl — with her foster mother nearby.

On May 4, 2005, Lewis withdrew the girl from Pacific Middle School.

On May 13, 2005, the state sent Lewis a certified letter. The allegations of abuse and neglect filed in January were unfounded.

Two days later, Kent police officers responded to a call from a local apartment complex. Neighbors said a girl with black eyes was "being used as a slave."

A BROKEN TOOTH AND BURNS


6211 S. 249th St, Kent (2005)

The neighbors told police the girl was timid and afraid to talk with people.

She "is always seen walking back from the store without any shoes, with 10-15 bags in hand," officers noted. Another witness spotted "a broken front tooth and burns on (her) back and shoulder area."

It didn't look like the girl was in school, the witnesses said. She sat on the porch of the apartment all day.

When officers came to the apartment, they found Lewis' invalid mother, Johnson; two young children who looked healthy and clean; and the girl.

Johnson said there was no abuse, and that the girl had black eyes because of allergies.

Interviewed in another room, the girl said her eyes were swollen because of medication. The burns and other scars were old, she said. She broke her tooth biting into something, and then changed the story — she had been running around in the kitchen and hit her tooth on the counter. No, she wasn't being abused. Yes, she was going to school.

When Lewis arrived and spoke to officers, she gave a similar account. The black eyes came from allergies. An officer asked for the name of the girl's doctor. Lewis couldn't remember. The officer asked about the broken tooth.

Lewis said "it wasn't her responsibility to keep track of that kind of thing," the officer wrote. "I asked Chornice why she felt that it wasn't a foster parent's job to make sure her kids were healthy and she got upset and never really answered the question."

Lewis added that the girl had problems at school with fighting and stealing. Police filed a report, and sent a copy to CPS.

CASE CLOSED

Once more, Mark Widaman started an investigation. In his files were all the prior allegations, all accompanied by denials from Lewis and the girl, all ruled unfounded.

The latest inquiry followed the same pattern. Lewis denied the allegations. Widaman asked why the girl wasn't in school, and why Lewis had withdrawn her.

Lewis denied withdrawing the child. As far as she knew, the girl was still going to school.

The girl would come home from school that afternoon, Lewis said. Widaman could speak to her then.

Lewis' apartment was tidy and clean, Widaman noted. The other children in the home looked well. Widaman interviewed them. They said there was no abuse in the home, and that their foster sister had allergies that made her eyes look black.

Widaman spoke to the girl later that day in the apartment. She denied all the allegations. Once more, he summed up his findings in a case report.

"Available evidence indicates that more likely than not, negligent treatment or maltreatment of (the girl) by Chornice Lewis did not occur," he wrote.

The case was closed.

THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER

By mid-2005, the girl had a new assigned social worker. Heidi Canfield had met the girl briefly during a home interview in May.

During another interview with Lewis and the girl in August, Canfield noticed the child didn't say much.

Lewis said the girl had behavioral problems. She had destroyed dishes, and damaged the carpet, the walls and a vacuum cleaner.

Canfield recommended counseling for the child. Lewis said that wasn't necessary. Instead, she talked money — the state's payments for foster care. Lewis was approaching a financial milestone of sorts. During her years as a foster mother, the state had paid her almost $100,000.

By November, Canfield was beginning to worry about the girl, who would not talk to her. Only Lewis would speak during foster care interviews. At another meeting, Lewis wouldn't let Canfield into the apartment.

Records show Lewis was still refusing Canfield's offers of counseling for the girl. Instead, she wanted clothing vouchers.

In mid-December, Lewis called the DSHS office in Kent.  She wanted the girl's Social Security number and a clothing voucher. Staffers said there was a process for getting such information, and that the girl wasn't eligible for a voucher.

Lewis blew up.

She tried calling other staffers at the office, demanding the girl's Social Security number. She called Canfield and her supervisor "bitches," and accused a secretary of racism. Workers heard an older woman's voice in the background, making similar comments.

Around the same time, Canfield spoke to the girl's younger brother, who was living in another foster home.

The boy said he had been harmed when he lived with Lewis' family. He didn't want to say anything about his sister. He was afraid she would be hurt.

Collectively, foster care officials decided to remove the girl from Lewis' home. They would take action in January, after the holiday break.

Lewis' string of deceptions, stretched over 10 years, was about to run out.

'IF YOU MOVE, YOU'LL GO BLIND'

While the workers fretted, something happened. The precise date is unclear — somewhere between early November and Christmas, according to state records. The girl later described the scene in two interviews with police.

The family was packing. That was the girl's job, but she made a mistake. Lewis found out.

She picked up one of Rose Johnson's insulin needles.

A: I was the one who was packing, but I forgot to pack some stuff, and my cousin, um, picked up a needle, well, she already had it in her hand, because she was putting it away, but then she put it in my eye.

Lewis held the needle in place for what felt like a couple of minutes, the girl said.

Q: Which eye?

A: My right eye.

The girl said Lewis gave her a warning:

"If you move, you'll go blind."

The girl did not move.

A: When she pulled out, ah, I couldn't see anything, everything was watery and blurry.

Q: How long was your vision blurry?

A: How was it?

Q: Yeah, how long was it blurry? Your vision.

A: It still is.

Q: Okay. And why did she poke you with the insulin needle in your eye?

A: I forgot to pack something.

Q: Did you ever go to the doctor for that?

A: No.

— excerpt from victim's interview with Federal Way police, Jan. 10, 2006

A FATEFUL DAY

On Jan. 2, 2006, a neighbor at the apartment complex called CPS to report an incident: He said Lewis had locked the girl in a storage closet on the back porch for six hours or more.

The man's name is redacted in state records. He spoke to CPS employees twice about the incident. He said he saw Lewis open the closet door, throw a bucket of water at the girl, punch and slap her in the face, then hit her in the head repeatedly with an umbrella.

"I hope you have learned your lesson," the neighbor heard Lewis say. He could see the girl shaking.

He saw her at a nearby convenience store later that day, buying a loaf of bread. She had bruises on her face and burns on her hands. She looked like she'd been in a fight.


31500 1st Ave. S., Federal Way (2005-06)

"Are you OK?" the man asked. "Do you need help?"

"I can't talk about it," the girl said, adding she had to get home right away.

The neighbor also reported he had seen the girl locked in the closet at least four times in the past week.

For once, the state gave Lewis no warning. Two days later, CPS investigator Banks Evans, state social workers Canfield and Anna Baker and Federal Way police officer Brett Hatfield gathered at the complex.

Hatfield knocked on the door, identifying the party as police and CPS.

"Just a minute," a voice said. Several minutes passed before Lewis opened the door.

Canfield, Evans and Hatfield filed reports of the scene in the apartment. What they saw bore little resemblance to the portraits of family stability Lewis had orchestrated in the past, when she received advance notice of state visits.

The visitors saw a bag of garbage on the floor and piles of clothes strewn in the dining room. Evans noticed what looked like a vending machine.

A dresser turned on its side blocked the entrance to the hallway and bedrooms. In the master bedroom, piles of clutter reached to the ceiling. In the living room, the visitors saw two beds on cement blocks, a portable hospital-style toilet and a television.

Lewis sat on the floor near one of the beds. Her mother, Johnson, sat nearby. Lewis' three children were also in the apartment. There was no sign of the girl.

Hatfield asked for the key to the storage closet, strode to the sliding glass door and went outside.

Evans told Lewis the reason for the visit — a neighbor had seen what looked like mistreatment. Where was the girl? The state workers wanted to speak to her.

Not home, Lewis said. She was at school.

"Which school?" Evans asked.

Lewis named a school. Evans spotted a lie. He said he had already spoken with that school district. The girl's name wasn't in the enrollment records.

Lewis shrugged it off. The children enrolled themselves in school and brought home the paperwork, she said.

Evans shifted. When would the girl be home?

An hour or two, Lewis said. The girl liked to go to the mall and hang out with friends. She might be with her boyfriend, Lewis added.

While Evans and Lewis fenced, Canfield noticed something.

Behind Lewis, a blanket on the floor was moving.

Canfield told Evans, who edged sideways for a better look. Lewis moved, too, blocking his angle with a pillow.

Evans called to Hatfield, saying someone else was in the apartment.


A neighbor said in January 2006 that he’d seen Chornice Lewis’ foster daughter locked in a storage unit, behind the door at left, on the back porch of the family’s home in Federal Way.

Lewis stood quickly.

"I need you guys to leave," she said, her voice suddenly sharp. "Everybody needs to get out of the apartment now!"

Hatfield, returning from the porch, took charge. No one was leaving, he said. Why did Lewis want them to leave?

Canfield watched the quivering blanket. It was rising.

"There's someone under the blanket!" she shouted.

Hatfield stood next to the blanket, asked whoever was underneath to come out, and lifted it with his baton.

The folds of fabric fell away, revealing the 14-year-old girl.

Both of her eyes were swollen. One was rimmed with blood. Her hair was ragged, as though a blind barber had cut it off in patches.

Lewis and her invalid mother screamed.

"You've been hiding here the whole time?" they said. "You're not in school?"

Order disintegrated. As Lewis and her mother yelled, Canfield called to the girl.

"Come over and stand with me," she said.

The girl came, tottering through a canyon of shrieks. Lewis and Johnson hurled verbal bombs, berating her for hiding.

Canfield ignored them.

"You're leaving with me," she told the girl. "You're not coming back here."

The scene was out of control. Hatfield told Canfield to take the girl outside, away from the screeching women. Canfield and the girl left, with Evans and Baker close behind. Hatfield soon followed.

In a recent interview with The News Tribune, Hatfield said he was in assessment mode. He wanted a clearer picture of what was going on, the nature of the girl's injuries. He didn't know what would happen next.

Outside, the group questioned the frightened girl, who refused to answer. Collectively, they decided to take her into protective custody.

Precious minutes ticked away. Hatfield went back to the door. It was locked. He knocked.

From inside, Johnson, the invalid, yelled that she couldn't answer the door. Hatfield had to go through the back.

Hustling around the side of the building to the porch, Hatfield opened the glass door and went inside.

Johnson was alone.

Hatfield looked outside and saw footprints in the grass.

Chornice Lewis was gone, with her three children in tow.

'REPEATED SEVERE ... CHILD ABUSE'

At first, the girl barely talked to her rescuers. The mention of food drew a thin smile, but that was all.

Hospital examinations revealed the extent of her injuries: a burnt tongue. Blunt injuries to her knuckles, hands and feet, as well as burns. Multiple contusions to the face. A chipped tooth. Multiple scars and contusions on her body.

And the eyes. Not one, but both. Four puncture wounds. A fractured eye socket. Functional blindness in the right eye.

A doctor at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle cataloged her wounds, attributing them to "repeated severe episodes of child physical abuse, intentional inflicted injury amounting to torture."

Chornice Lewis was a wanted fugitive. She had fled from police. State records showed she also was under investigation for a separate case of welfare fraud. She had generated complaints for a decade and the state now knew her foster daughter said she had been abused for years.

Still, Lewis' foster care license remained active.

On Jan. 13, nine days after the rescue, Child Welfare Services supervisor Lonette Dominguez spoke to the foster care worker who had administered Lewis' account since 2001, and knew the story behind the girl's removal from Lewis' home.

"Supervisor spoke with licensor Laticia Williams this morning and was informed that there is no plan at this time to revoke Chornice's license," Dominguez wrote in a short report.

"This was very concerning to this supervisor, who does not agree with this decision."

HOLED UP IN HOUSTON

On Jan. 20, 2006, King County prosecutors filed a warrant for Lewis' arrest, and charged her with two counts of assault, including torture. Federal Way police, still searching for Lewis, sent out a news release with her picture.

On Jan. 31, six years after the first reported CPS complaint about Lewis and four weeks after the 16th complaint appeared, DSHS leaders gathered and made a decision: Lewis' foster care license would be revoked. The paperwork took four months.

On Feb. 4, U.S. marshals caught up with Lewis. She was holed up in an apartment in Houston. Her children were taken into protective custody. Lewis was sent to the King County Jail.

Investigators interviewed two of her biological children, both girls. One was 15, the other 11. The third child was a 17-month-old boy.

The 15-year-old denied anyone was abused in the Lewis home.

The 11-year-old was another story. She denied the abuse, too, but investigators thought she sounded coached. She contradicted herself at times, looking up and around the room before she gave her answers.

Hearing one question, she tried to think, then stopped and talked to herself.

"I forget this all the time," she said.

ALWAYS THE EYES

Social worker Canfield visited the girl every few days after the rescue, accompanying her on hospital visits and chatting with her quietly.

The girl smiled more often now, gradually revealing more details of her ordeal. Canfield filed regular case reports that summarized their talks.

The girl had denied abuse in the past, she said, because Lewis always knew about the interviews with social workers. She always knew about the complaints from schools. She always retaliated with more abuse.

The girl said she was beaten with a crutch. Lewis made her stand at attention all night next to the bed. If the girl fell asleep, barbells were thrown at her feet. She had to hold her hands on the table while Lewis smashed them with canned food.

Another punishment was the stove burner. The girl said it was red. She was forced to put her hand on it. When she tried to pull her hand away, Lewis held it down.

And the eyes — always the eyes. Lewis poked them with fingers, with keys, with the needle.

The injuries were evidence. While they healed, Lewis kept the girl out of school, always mindful of state laws governing truancy. The girl would miss a few days, but never enough to trigger an inquiry.

Then Lewis would withdraw her from one school and send her to another. Even that charade had stopped — by the time of her rescue, the girl hadn't been to school in seven months.

In an interview conducted by the King County Prosecutor's Office, the girl's younger brother confirmed his sister's account and added more detail.

Lewis and her mother hit the children with extension cords, brooms, whatever was handy, the boy said. He remembered wetting the bed, being beaten for it, and seeing blood in his urine when he went to the bathroom. The boy remembered being burned with lighters and locked in the trunk of the car more times than he could count. He said Lewis pressed his sister's hand on the orange stove burner until the skin peeled away.

'FIND IT YOURSELF'

Banks Evans, the CPS field investigator, had one more task before he could close his case. Lewis had to be interviewed, or at least given the opportunity to talk.

Evans took a trip to the Kent branch of the King County Jail in late April. In the visiting area, he waited for Lewis.

She came to the security window and picked up the phone. Evans asked Lewis if she remembered him.

"No."

Evans identified himself.

"I can't talk to you," Lewis said.

Evans asked Lewis for the name of her attorney.

"Find it yourself," Lewis said. She dropped the phone and called for the guard.

THE PRAYER

In the early weeks of 2006, Heidi Canfield watched the girl blossom. She was living with another foster parent now.

Canfield watched her progress closely, seeing the signs of healing. She took her shopping for shoes, praised her new hairstyle and showered her with compliments.

Smiles lit the girl's face. Sometimes she laughed, and twittered like a teenager.

She was beautiful, Canfield thought.

During one late January checkup at Mary Bridge Children's Hospital in Tacoma, the girl left her new earrings behind. Canfield stopped by a few days later to pick them up.

A receptionist in the radiology unit asked how the girl was doing, and said the staff had been thinking about her. They wanted to send their love. Canfield couldn't help crying.

On Feb. 1, 2006, Canfield went with the girl to another doctor's appointment.

The child looked so much better. She smiled and talked. She had been helping the investigators who were searching for Chornice Lewis, trying to recall where relatives lived.

Looking back on her rescue, the girl remembered a man: the one who called CPS.

She knew him. He was married to her Aunt Rose, she said. The man was disabled. Sometimes Chornice took care of him. He feared Chornice. He knew what was going on.

The girl remembered saying a prayer with the man — a prayer for salvation. Her prayer was answered, she said.

She looked at Canfield, and said something more:

"I knew you would come."

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486
sean.robinson@thenewstribune.com

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