Saturday, January 12, 2008

Boys abused in foster care sue state

TRIAL BEGINS: They witnessed another child being beaten to death.

The two boys were born into families messed up by drinking and drug abuse, by violence and neglect.

Then the state agency that is supposed to protect children put the boys with a foster mother who routinely hit and tormented them and things only got worse. Before it was over, the foster mother beat another boy to death in front of them.

Now the state of Alaska is on trial, defending itself against charges it repeatedly failed A.J. and D.D., children in state custody whose lives intersected during the horrific months they spent in the Anchorage foster home of Melissa and Douglas Falgoust.

Advocates for the boys, now 17 and 18 and still in state custody, are asking jurors to award them $10 million each to repair their broken lives. Their lawyers say they are so damaged by years of mistreatment that they can't live on their own or even hold a job in a pizza joint.

The disturbing story started unfolding Thursday in Anchorage Superior Court. Lawyers gave opening statements and the first witnesses were called: A.J.'s second-grade teacher, and one of the two boys, D.D., who was brought to Anchorage from his group home in Fairbanks to testify.

Because the boys have been abused, and because their lawyers say seeing their names in the newspaper would excessively traumatize them, the Daily News is using initials instead of names for this story.

"We're suing the state of Alaska because it failed to protect these children. It failed to follow its own regulations and policies when it was required to do so," Christine Schleuss, an attorney for the boys, told the jury. Many of the jurors, picked over three days from a pool of dozens, are parents.


The state's defense boils down to this: It didn't know the whole story and wasn't alone in making decisions. It relied on many others, including therapists, case managers with a nonprofit agency, and advocates known as guardians ad litem, Gail Voigtlander, an assistant attorney general, told jurors.

"The evidence will show that OCS's decisions were reasonable and appropriate given the information that they had at the time and their objective, as well, of finding permanent placements," Voigtlander said.

The state had no idea how conniving the Falgousts were, or that Melissa assaulted her husband with a baseball bat not long before she killed her foster son, Steven Murray, in July 1999, Voigtlander said.

"Even when they did terrible things, they knew how to work the system and cover their tracks so they didn't get caught," she said.

Melissa Falgoust, now 42, was convicted in 2001 of manslaughter. She served more than 6 1/2 years and is out of prison on probation.

This is an unusual public trial that may open a window into what was so wrong with the Division of Family and Youth Services, apparently for so long.

DFYS now is called the Office of Children's Services, or OCS, but its duties are still the same, and so are the complaints that it either does too little to protect kids or is too zealous and rips families apart.

Schleuss went through the boys' sad history with jurors. A.J. was only 6 months old when his father stabbed his mother multiple times and went to prison. His grandmother, who had a drinking problem, was supposed to take care of him. But she liked him to stay outside while she partied, no matter the weather, Schleuss said.

At age 6, A.J. was suicidal and hospitalized, where he revealed one of his grandmother's friends had molested him. DFYS never investigated that, Schleuss said. The state only took custody when the grandmother said she didn't want him anymore, a month after his seventh birthday.

As a second-grader at Lake Otis Elementary, he had behavior problems but flourished at school, his teacher, Kristina Peterson, told jurors. Once, he was scared to go home because his shirt tail got a little wet when he went to the bathroom. He told her that Melissa Falgoust would make him eat baby food and crawl on his knees like a baby until they bled. The teacher made a report to DFYS. The state left him in Falgoust's home.

D.D. was born cocaine positive and taken from his mother. Over the years he bounced back and forth between his mother and foster care.

D.D. is a young man now. His dark hair is cut close and he has a mustache. His voice was almost a monotone.

His mother drank and did drugs and hit him, he testified. If he and his little brother asked for food, she would ignore them or tell them to play video games. Then she sold the game system for drugs and alcohol, he said.

He was maybe 7 when the state put him in the Falgoust foster home.


At first, the woman he called Melissa was nice, he said.

"Then things got a little crazy." She hit him a lot, he said. She made the boys exercise "more than you would imagine," 2,000 jumping jacks, and if they quit, she would grab their arms or hit them, he said.

She put alarms on the boys' rooms and if they tried to get out to go to the bathroom, she would make them "do lines," writing pages and pages for punishment.

One time, he didn't want to do lines so when he wet the bed he hid his soaked underwear. But she numbered their underwear so she knew it was missing.

"She got really mad and ended up choking me, putting me against the wall," D.D. said.

As for Douglas Falgoust, he sometimes just sat there when the boys were being hurt and sometimes got hit himself, D.D. said.

Steven Murray, the boy Melissa Falgoust killed, was treated the worst, D.D. told jurors, because she figured he'd never go back to his "real family."

Once Steven ran away and told police Melissa beat him. Schleuss showed jurors pictures that police took of his bottom with belt marks on it. But DFYS and others believed Melissa when she said Steven hurt himself.

The day Steven was killed, Melissa told D.D. to put on boxing gloves and hit him, the boy said. Steven wasn't doing exercises like she wanted. But D.D. couldn't hit him hard enough, he said, so Melissa took over, hitting and slamming him against the wall until he went into seizures.
D.D. still has nightmares. He thought it was his fault Steven got killed.

Another defendant in the trial is Alternatives Community Mental Health Center Inc., which provided a case manager as well as workers called activity therapists to socialize the boys. The state is suing Alternatives.

Alternatives lawyer Bill Ingaldson said the agency, now called Denali Family Services, did nothing wrong. The boys already were disturbed and suffered from an attachment disorder before Alternatives got involved, Ingaldson told the jury.

The boys have settled their claims with the Falgousts, he told jurors.

Original Article with comments - Alaska News : Boys abused in foster care sue state

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