Abused girl appears to have strong claim against state

June 22, 2007 

The former foster child of Chornice Lewis hasn’t filed a damage claim against the state of Washington, but two local lawyers familiar with the legal terrain say the teen would have a strong case if she chose to pursue it.

In a prospective legal battle, the girl’s representatives could cite several elements:

• Records from the state Department of Social and Health Services showing a 10-year history of complaints against Lewis, including charges of neglect and abuse reported by neighbors, educators and police. The state repeatedly dismissed the complaints.

• Charges of criminal assault against Lewis, filed in King County Superior Court. (Lewis' trial is pending.)

• Medical reports of the girl’s injuries, including puncture wounds in both eyes, allegedly inflicted by Lewis with hypodermic needles.

• An internal review of the Lewis case, completed in February 2007, which acknowledges the state’s failure to protect the girl, and cites “a system breakdown involving all stakeholders” as the reason.

“She’s got a dynamite claim,” said Jack Connelly, a Tacoma attorney who has wrestled the state foster care system in the past, and prevailed in court. “She can bring the claim and she should.”

The girl, now 16, lived with Lewis from 1995 to January 2006, when state social workers and Federal Way police rescued her. She later told police Lewis abused her for years, and coached her to deny mistreatment when questioned.

The state’s internal review cites specific failures by state and King County caregivers appointed to safeguard the girl’s welfare. It would provide the theoretical backbone of a lawsuit, said Steve Bulzomi, a Tacoma attorney whose past tussles with the state include settlement of a case stemming from treatment of patients at the Washington School for the Deaf.

“God, what a catastrophe,” Bulzomi said, referring to the girl’s treatment. “I hope she gets a lawyer and I hope she sticks ’em for a few million bucks.”

According to DSHS spokeswoman Kathy Spears, the girl has not filed a damage claim against the state – the mandatory prelude to a lawsuit. The sequence is not automatic. The state could accept the claim and negotiate a settlement, or reject the claim, opening the door to court action.

The girl’s intentions are unknown. She lives with a new foster parent, and the state, citing privacy restrictions, will not disclose her location. She is still a minor, and could not file a claim on her own – a court-appointed guardian ad litem would have to take that step on her behalf. After the girl turns 18, she could decide on her own.

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