CHARLESTON — In early 2011, an 11-year-old girl in Cabell County told her stepmother that her father had impregnated her.
Six months earlier, she’d been in foster care. When the state ordered her to be placed in her biological father’s care, she’d known him for less than a year, according to a lawsuit filed Monday against the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources.
Her father had a criminal history of abuse, which state documents show the DHHR knew. The agency also is required to perform a criminal background check on kinship caregivers.
But, according to the lawsuit, the department tasked with putting the girl in a safe home sent her to live with him anyway.
“On Aug. 21, 2010, (the DHHR) improperly and recklessly placed the then-11-year-old plaintiff in the custody of her biological father, who had a history as a perpetrator of abuse,” the lawsuit states.
Three months after she moved in with her father, she was pregnant with his child, according to the lawsuit.
State workers left her in the house with her father for two years — removing her once only for a few months — after she revealed the pregnancy to a therapist and her father told police that there was “a chance” sex had happened between the pair, according to the lawsuit.
The girl, who is now 21, is suing the DHHR for negligence and violating a number of state laws that mandate Child Protective Services workers remove children from dangerous situations.
The lawsuit, filed in Kanawha County, said the stepmother told the girl’s therapist that the father had impregnated the girl. The therapist conveyed the information to the DHHR.
Records from the DHHR included in the lawsuit said, “The plaintiff stated her biological father had impregnated her and otherwise graphically detailed facts surrounding the sexual assault.”
Others as well, including a friend of the stepmother, called Child Protective Services to report the news of who had impregnated the girl.
Additionally, the father was arrested for a domestic battery incident in 2011. The lawsuit says CPS left the daughter in the home after the arrest.
“It’s a shocking story,” James Barber, the woman’s attorney, said. “She feels like (the DHHR) made poor decisions, and she bore the brunt of it. She went through a terrible, terrible thing for a number of years.
“It was their responsibility to see she was placed somewhere in a good, safe environment.”
He said his client, who is going by “Jane Doe” in the lawsuit to protect her identity, felt for a long time that she couldn’t speak out because of her father’s threats of abuse.
“She lived under threats and intimidation for years,” Barber said.
Allison Adler, director of communications for the DHHR, said the agency “is evaluating the claims and will be conducting an internal investigation.”
The lawsuit also was filed against an “Unknown DHHR Supervisor(s)” as Barber said the agency failed to produce documents that showed who exactly made decisions in the girl’s case.
Additionally, the lawsuit alleges the DHHR knew that the girl’s stepmother secretly transported the girl to receive an abortion in “an effort to destroy criminal evidence against the father.”
Her father, who also is not named in the lawsuit in an effort to protect the woman’s identity, was arrested on incest and other charges in 2014. The case lingered in the Cabell County court systems for years, and the man avoided jail time for the incest charges by entering into a plea deal. He was placed on probation in 2017 for five years.
He violated his probation terms and has been incarcerated since 2018.
Barber said his first intent is to represent his client, but he added that the lawsuit also might “shine light on some of the deficiencies in the system.”
The lawsuit comes on the heels of a legislative audit that revealed CPS workers employed by the DHHR failed in 2018 to investigate half of the reports of child abuse in a timely manner, leaving children in danger. The issue wasn’t new, either; the state had been dinged multiple times for failing timely reporting statutes for at least 20 years.
Barber said that, in this case, CPS did act in a timely manner during the one time it was under a state-mandated response time after the girl told adults her father raped her.
However, Barber said, the state sent the girl to live with the stepmother in the stepmother’s mother’s home for a few months before returning her to her father’s house.
“They left her with someone who had more allegiance to (the father) than to her,” Barber said.
The DHHR is seeking to have dismissed a federal class-action lawsuit filed earlier this year in which the nonprofit A Better Childhood claims the state has mistreated children in foster care. Among its allegations, the lawsuit said the DHHR failed to employ and retain an adequate number of appropriately trained caseworkers.