The state’s failure to protect children from abuse

July 11, 2013 § Leave a comment

The state’s failure to protect children from abuse

Here is a draft of Sunday’s editorial:

Dozens of young children were abused by a Salem foster parent before he was caught and sent to prison. And then the incidents were hidden from public knowledge.

This might be the most widespread abuse by any single foster parent in Oregon history, involving several dozen children. It is scary that the man was approved as a foster parent, although the state has since raised its standards for evaluating potential foster parents. But it also is deeply troubling that the government, whether intentionally or inadvertently, did not publicly disclose this case.

To this day, officials say it was someone else’s responsibility to inform the public. But this case was so horrible that every agency involved should have ensured that happened. To do otherwise would leave the impression that officials wanted to keep this case out of the public eye.

Lawsuits reveal abuse

The case didn’t come to light until state and federal lawsuits were filed June 21 on behalf of the victims. The lawsuits allege that the state Department of Human Services inadequately vetted James Earl Mooney and his then-wife as prospective foster parents and subsequently ignored signs of sexual abuse involving the foster children placed with the couple.

Mooney pleaded guilty in January 2012 to five counts of first-degree sodomy and was sentenced to 50 years in prison, which seems too short a term in light of the many crimes to which he confessed. His wife, who did not face criminal charges, divorced him.

The lawsuits seek $22 million on behalf of 11 then-infants and toddlers who were placed in the Mooneys’ care, with the possibility that as many as 50 more victims could be added if they can be located.

These are allegations, yet to be proved in court. But the stated facts would make anyone wonder how Mooney ever got certified as a foster parent.

State made bad choice

He and his wife were 22 at the time, living in a small apartment and married for only six months when they sought to become foster parents.

There is nothing against being young or apartment dwellers. But starting a marriage is difficult as it is. Caring for medically fragile children, who need extra-loving and patient people who can handle their emotional problems, is exceedingly hard as well. To combine the factors of new marriage, difficult foster care and cramped living quarters would seem like a recipe for disaster.

Yet the state approved the Mooneys for that work.

There is nothing in the lawsuit to suggest that the Mooneys had any special expertise for serving those children. Rather, it details a dysfunctional growing up for Mooney, listing a series of red flags about his judgment and behavior.

As a result, the lawsuit contends:

“DHS knew and should have known that very bad things were going to happen to the Plaintiffs [the foster children]. From approximately February 2007 through May 2011, there were ongoing and escalating signs and symptoms of psychological distress occurring in the Mooneys’ DRS-certified home that were consistent with and suggestive of sexual abuse and/or child abuse. The information that was being reported in the Plaintiffs’ ongoing case plans and medical reports included evidence of anxiety and self harm, such as biting, hitting and pulling out hair and scratching, fecal smearing on objects and walls, suspicion of Defendant Mooney and improved demeanor upon learning that Mrs. Mooney was present.”

Children have more rights

Those accounts, and the graphic details that accompany them, portray a profound failure on the state’s part. Yes, the state now does a better job of evaluating foster parents, having adopted more stringent standards in 2009-10. The 2013 Legislature also passed a bill of rights for foster children.

Most foster parents are trustworthy, diligent and ethical care providers. Still, four years of rampant abuse occurred on the state’s watch, harming an untold number of children and sending a foster parent to prison. Are today’s safeguards sufficent, or will Oregonians someday look back at someone else with the same horror as James Earl Mooney?

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