After an eight-day trial, a Kenai jury has awarded $2 million to two sisters who were abused in foster care.
The jury on April 13 found the Office of Children's Services failed to protect the sisters, now adults, from harm and provide necessary counseling services when the agency had legal custody them.
They filed their case against the state in 2010. OCS had legal custody of the sisters from September 1998 to 2002 and again from September 2003 to 2006.
Fairbanks attorney Mike Kramer represented the plaintiffs.
Kramer praised the verdict in a press release as a step toward accountability for an agency whose operations, he said, are cloaked in secrecy and have minimal oversight despite their responsibilities.
"It is assumed that kids come into state's custody with some significant trauma," Kramer said in an email. "However, it is the state's duty to protect them from further trauma and to provide necessary mental health services. The jury found OCS negligently failed to protect these girls emotionally and physically."
The trial began April 5 at the Kenai Courthouse, with the older sister sharing her memories of growing up with her parents -- a mother who used drugs in front of her daughters and an abusive stepfather -- in Nikiski, according to trial testimony.
The sisters went to stay with their grandparents, who became their state-appointed foster parents. They were 8 and 6 when they went to live with Barbara, now deceased, and Jack Dominick.
But the situation was worse. The girls were physically abused by Barbara Dominick and sexually abused Jack Dominick, according to trial testimony.
Jack Dominick pleaded no contest to allegations of sexual abuse during the summer of 2000, according to records.
In March 1999, a condition report stated one of the girls may have been sexually abused in the past, which was likely based on counselor Linda Jacobsen's records. Jacobsen was offering "play therapy" to the sisters from November 1998 to March 2001. She suspected the girl was experiencing night terrors due to sexual abuse. However, none of the records were maintained at OCS.
The plaintiffs argued the destroyed records contained substantial reports of abuse, which could have been stopped if the agency followed policy and investigated all reports of harm.
Before the trial began, OCS argued that all actions regarding investigation, removal and placement of children in need of aid are discretionary policy decisions, and immune from civil claims.
The court disagreed.
The girls' mother eventually reported the sexual abuse to social worker Patricia Gray.
During the trial, Gray was confronted with numerous documents that Kramer said show she did not take necessary steps to protect the sisters after Jack Dominick's abuse was reported.
Gray also failed to address the grandmother's increasingly harmful reactions toward the girls.
"Grandma became abusive," the plaintiff said in court. "She didn't believe us (about Jack's abuse)."
Gray petitioned the state to release custody of the girls on April 2, 1999, less than a month after the sexual abuse was reported and two weeks after the counselor reported the grandmother's physical abuse.
When the petition was denied, Gray focused her efforts on giving the girls' permanent fund dividends to the grandmother. She also learned the girls were missing more than half of their counseling sessions, but did nothing about it, Kramer said.
"(Barbara Dominick) is committed to caring for the children as long as needed" and "it would be (Barbara's) responsibility to make sound judgment for the children" says OCS's petition and order for release from custody, dated April 2, 2001; an exhibit used during the trial.
Kramer said he believes Gray's testimony aided in obtaining the awarded sum.
Psychologist Mike Hopper, an expert hired by Kramer, also testified before the court. He testified that young abuse victims can overcome their plights if they are believed, validated and counseled during the immediate aftermath of abuse.
The jury decided OCS evaded providing such services.
An OCS supervisor wrote in a letter that the sisters required mental health counseling for at least two to three years. But as of January 2004, there were no mental health services in place for them. There had been none since they were discharged for non-attendance in July 2002.
The girls then lived in another foster home in Kasilof where, they argue, mistreatment occurred.
The girls were not visited by their caseworker. OCS policy requires monthly face-to-face meetings.
During the trail, the Kasilof foster parents denied any mistreatment. OCS argued it maintained regular contact with the girls.
The jury held OCS responsible for 95 percent of the awarded sum. The sister's maternal mother is responsible for the remaining 5 percent.
Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.