February 3, 2015
Our client, M.M., recently settled her case against DSHS for $2,500,000. Her case arose from sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her foster parent, Lester Drappeaux, who DSHS licensed to be a foster parent despite the fact that he was a convicted sex offender.
In December 1971, Lester Drappeaux was working as a janitor for the Snohomish School District when he was terminated over allegations that he had engaged in sexual misconduct with a minor student. The local prosecutor brought charges against Drappeaux, who pled guilty to taking indecent liberties with a minor and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
From 1972 to 1974, the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (“DSHS”) oversaw Drappeaux’s probation for the sex crime conviction. However, just four years later, DSHS granted Drappeaux a license to be a foster parent, despite a Washington law that disqualified sex offenders from becoming a foster parent.
PCVA attorney Jason P. Amala, who has brought a number of cases against the State of Washington on behalf of abuse survivors, says the mistake occurred at a time DSHS was being warned that its system was broken: “Lester Drappeaux was licensed just two years after the state auditor publicly warned DSHS that its system was broken, and that sex offenders like Drappeaux were in the foster care program and abusing children. We saw no evidence DSHS did anything meaningful in response to those warnings.”
The State of Washington took custody of M.M. in 1979, when she was about five years old. That same year, DSHS placed M.M. in the Drappeaux foster home for the first time. She was placed in and out of the home a number of times until 1986, when she was permanently placed in the home until she graduated from high school in 1992.
In deposition and court records, M.M. testified the abuse began when she was first placed in the home and escalated over time, eventually happening once or twice a week. Drappeaux threatened to kill her and the other foster children in the home if she told anyone what he was doing to her. M.M. thought she was protecting other children, but records filed with the court show that Drappeaux abused a number of other foster children who were placed in his care.
M.M.’s lawsuit was not based solely on DSHS licensing a convicted sex offender. According to Amala, DSHS made an egregious mistake in February 1992 when it received a report that Drappeaux’s step-daughter alleged he had sexually abused her, and that she was concerned for the foster children in his home because he had spent time in jail for having sex with a minor. But M.M. provided the court with records that suggest DSHS’s investigator closed her investigation when the step-daughter did not return her phone calls. According to Amala, the lack of action fell far below the standard of care: “Nothing else was done. They could have walked a few blocks to the courthouse and pulled his criminal file. Or they could have at least confronted him or his wife. Instead, they made a few phone calls and closed their file. Even their own expert witness testified this was a massive breach of the standard of care. One of their witnesses testified she was ‘shocked’ at what was done, but she was one of the people that was supposed to have done something.”
Drappeaux kept his license for three more years, until 1995, when DSHS received another report regarding him. Initially, investigators were prepared to close the investigation, but a supervisor ordered them to continue. A subsequent FBI check revealed Drappeux had a long criminal history, including the conviction for indecent liberties with a minor. When pressed to take a lie detector test, Mr. Drappeux turned in his foster license.
Amala says the evidence suggests DSHS and its workers were simply too fond of the Drappeaux foster home and lost their objectivity, particularly as it was one of the few foster homes for Native American children. “Perhaps the most remarkable fact we discovered is that DSHS awarded Mr. Drappeaux the “Foster Parent of the Year” award in 1995, at the same time that it was conducting a second investigation into allegations that he abused children.”