The Washington State Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the state is responsible for the welfare of children after they're placed with foster parents, broadening protections for more than 10,000 kids in government custody.
In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled that the state Department of Social and Health Services "owes a duty of reasonable care to protect foster children from abuse at the hands of their foster parents," according to the opinion.
The ruling affirms a decision by the Court of Appeals in favor of five children who sued DSHS for failing to investigate and stop abuse committed against them by their foster parents, and sends the case back to trial. In doing so, it expands the state's responsibility for the welfare of the children beyond the end of its physical custody.
"We agree with the Court of Appeals that the foster children produced sufficient evidence from which a jury could find that DSHS breached its protective duty, and that the breach of that duty caused their injuries," Justice Debra Stephens, author of the majority opinion, said in the ruling.
The decision comes amid increasing criticism of DSHS for its handling of children in the foster-care system. The department has long dealt with not having enough caseworkers, and has seen a steady rise of emergency calls concerning the welfare of children.
DSHS last month agreed to pay $19.3 million to settle a 2017 lawsuit brought on behalf of a girl who was left blind, brain-damaged and quadriplegic after being abused by a man, who claimed to be her father, that the department placed her with in Texas. It marked the biggest settlement reached in a case involving one person in Washington state's history.
Lincoln Beauregard, one of the lawyers representing the five children who brought the case against DSHS, said he hopes the ruling will create a greater incentive for the department to conduct safety checks on kids in the foster-care system. The Tacoma lawyer called department employees "well-intentioned," but added that his clients had a social worker who wasn't checking on them with the frequency that she should have been.
Last year, authority over child welfare was transferred from DSHS to a new agency, the Department of Children, Youth and Families.
Responding to the Supreme Court ruling, Department of Children, Youth and Families Secretary Ross Hunter said in a statement that he will work to improve the quality of care for children by "reviewing and reforming all aspects" of his agency's operations.
DSHS placed five girls with Eatonville couple Scott and Drew Ann Hamrick between 1998 and 2000, according to court records. They adopted three girls in 2000 and the two others in 2003. Over the five-year period between the first foster-care placements and adoptions, the Hamricks physically, sexually and psychologically abused all five children. Evidence presented at a later trial showed that a social worker who was assigned to two of the girls' cases in 1999 failed to conduct health and safety visits, even though they were required.
The Pierce County Sheriff's Office began its investigation following abuse allegations at the Hamrick house in 2011. Drew Ann Hamrick was convicted of witness tampering and child abuse; Scott Hamrick killed himself before the investigation concluded. Two of the children sued DSHS later that year, alleging that the department failed to investigate or take any protective action during the period before they were adopted.
In the dissenting opinion, Justice Barbara Madsen disagreed that a special relationship exists between foster children and DSHS and that, therefore, the state shouldn't be held responsible for child abuse that occurs after custody is transferred to the foster parent.
Justice Stephens was joined by Justices Susan Owens, Steven González, Sheryl Gordon McCloud and Mary Yu. Justice Madsen's dissent was signed onto by Justices Mary Fairhurst, Charles Johnson and Charles Wiggins.