Posted by Sean Breslin
September 2, 2009
Wednesday morning started bleakly for the Oregon Department of Human Services Children and Families Division—at 10AM a woman known only as “B.D.” filed suit against the Division and two of its caseworkers seeking $5 million in damages for years of abuse.
According to the complaint, Children and Family Services (CAF) removed the woman from her natural parents’ home around 1993, when she was four years old. B.D. was placed in the care of her maternal grandmother and her grandmother’s husband, David Purcell. For years, B.D. endured rape and abuse at the hands of Purcell and eventually came forward about the abuse in 1999, at the age of 10. Purcell is currently serving prison time for his crimes against her.
But then this August, B.D. discovered that she was not the first person Purcell abused: he had been previously convicted in 1980 of raping his 14-year-old daughter and in 1987 of rape and sodomy related to a stepdaughter.
Learning that, B.D. wanted to hold the state accountable for putting her in an abusive situation. The suit she brought on Wednesday claims that CAF failed in its duty to provide “safe and appropriate foster care,” and that the two caseworkers (named “John Doe I” and “John Doe II” in the complaint) had “constructive knowledge” about Purcell’s past convictions. Attorney Kelly Clark, who is representing B.D., explains the case in blunter terms.
“They should have known. That’s what it means,” Clark says.
Clark says he is confident that legal pressures have forced change in many private institutions like the Catholic Church, but that public systems like foster care remain largely unscrutinized. He hopes this case will bring a change in policy, but he’s not holding his breath for a genuine change of heart at DHS. “If it has to be done because they’re afraid of liability or afraid of bad publicity, I don’t really care. I want them to do the right thing.”
Read on for more details about the case.
Because of statutory limitations, Clark is bringing the suit as both an instance of alleged negligence by the state, and as a violation of B.D.’s civil rights. According to Clark, negligence cases cannot be pursued more than two years after the victim has become “reasonable aware” of her right to sue, but there are no statute of limitations on federal civil rights law.
“One of the reason’s [lawsuits like this] have not been common is because the law is so dang convoluted. The state has made it very difficult to sue the state,” says Clark.
The Oregon Department of Human Services did not immediately return calls about the suit.