Who was at fault? Everyone

‘Checks and balances were not evident’ among those supervising the foster care of a girl who suffered years of abuse, a state review concludes.

June 22, 2007 

Officially, the state of Washington’s internal review of the Chornice Lewis case outlines a series of findings and recommendations.

Unofficially, it’s a list of screw-ups 16 pages long. Here are the highlights:

WHO WAS AT FAULT? EVERYONE

Everyone, except police and teachers who repeatedly raised concerns. The review of Lewis’ decade of apparent abuse of a foster child in her care, completed in February 2007, blames “a system breakdown involving all stakeholders,” including state social workers, King County courts and foster care licensing workers.

“Parties to the case failed to hold each other accountable, and the management of this case and the care of the children suffered as a result,” the review states. “Checks and balances were not evident in this case.”

WHO WAS FIRED? WHO WAS DISCIPLINED? NO ONE

No one, according to the Department of Social and Health Services. However, four foster care licensing workers in the agency’s Kent office have been reassigned to other offices, where they perform the same duties but face closer observation, said Mike Tornquist, director of the Division of Licensed Resources, a subset of DSHS.

Reassigned workers included Laticia Williams, the foster care licensor who handled Lewis’ licensing applications for five years. Williams also was given “additional coaching and feedback,” and sent to the training academy DSHS provides for licensing workers, Tornquist said.

WHO CONDUCTED THE CASE REVIEW?

DSHS staff members; a King County Superior Court judge; a member of the county’s court-appointed special advocate staff; a King County physician specializing in child abuse and neglect; and a state assistant attorney general specializing in child dependency cases.

DID THE STATE MAKE ANY OTHER CHANGES?

Yes. Tornquist said the Lewis case revealed that foster care licensing workers were investigating child abuse and neglect complaints, though they weren’t trained for such work. He said he has shifted the responsibility to trained investigators.

DOES THIS MEAN THERE WERE OTHER PROBLEMS AT KENT'S DSHS OFFICE?

Yes. Tornquist said DSHS leaders found “some problems” and “some issues” that led to state action. He didn’t say what they were.

“It wasn’t what I would consider a large-scale problem,” he said. “There were some things that needed to be cleaned up.”

IS CHILD ABUSE COMMON IN THE STATE FOSTER CARE SYSTEM?

State leaders say no. They note that .24 percent of children in Washington’s foster care system are subject to maltreatment, which is much better than the national standard of .57 percent.

EXACTLY HOW DID THE STATE FAIL IN THE LEWIS CASE?

The full case review is posted at www.thenewstribune.com, but here are some of the findings and recommendations, edited to cut through government jargon:

THE FINDINGS

FINDINGS - LEGAL • A court-appointed advocate for the girl never met the child or filed any reports about her welfare as required, and state social workers didn’t communicate with the advocate.

• The advocate was discharged when the girl turned 12, in keeping with standard court procedure. An attorney was assigned to keep an eye on the girl’s welfare, but never investigated her situation or status.

• The court didn’t ask about the child’s progress, the quality of her care or the status of her foster care plan.

• State workers didn’t tell the court about the abuse and licensing complaints against Lewis.

RECOMMENDATIONS - LEGAL • The court should expect reports from child advocates, and follow up if none is filed.

• State workers should tell advocates about reports of abuse or neglect.

• Discharge of an advocate when a child turns 12 shouldn’t be automatic – individual circumstances should dictate the decision.

• Courts should regularly request information regarding a child’s well-being and progress.

FINDINGS - SERVICES • State workers relied on Chornice Lewis for information about the girl’s well-being, didn’t get medical records and believed Lewis’ characterizations of the girl’s behavior problems.

• Workers noted that Lewis was defensive and difficult to work with.

• Workers gathered little information from the girl, who often was interviewed in Lewis’ presence.

• Lewis faced no consequences for licensing violations, including moving the girl from school to school without notice, and changing addresses without notice.

RECOMMENDATIONS - SERVICES • State workers should get medical records to document a child’s well-being.

• State workers shouldn’t rely solely on foster parents for information about a child’s health care and progress in school.

• State workers should interview children without the foster parents present.

• State workers should contact a child’s school to verify attendance and academic progress.

• If foster parents report behavior problems, the state should verify them independently.

• State rules (the Washington Administrative Code) should be changed to require foster parents to comply with court orders regarding a child’s care.

FINDINGS - INVESTIGATIONS AND COMPLAINTS • The state never verified that Lewis and the girl were related.

• Medical follow-ups on the girl’s reported injuries were incomplete.

• State workers didn’t always collaborate with law enforcement when abuse complaints surfaced.

• Complaints of abuse and neglect were not thoroughly and objectively investigated – state workers didn’t analyze the history and patterns of complaints.

• Lewis said the girl behaved badly at home, but educators saw no evidence of it at school.

• Lewis was defensive and intimidated social workers and educators, accusing them of racism.

• State workers didn’t recognize typical patterns of child abuse.

• The girl’s injuries got worse when the state investigated abuse complaints.

• The girl’s denials of abuse were questionable.

• The girl didn’t go to school in fall 2005 – state workers didn’t notice.

• Lewis and her mother, Rose Johnson, had a history of generating complaints of abuse and neglect.

• State workers minimized educators’ concerns about abuse and neglect.

• State workers wrongly relied on the girl to report abuse.

RECOMMENDATIONS - INVESTIGATIONS AND COMPLAINTS • The state should verify claims of family ties to foster children.

• Social workers should be trained to deal with difficult clients.

• Social workers need training to recognize patterns of child abuse.

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

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