The Department of Human Services is asking a federal judge to forbid the release of evidence in a civil lawsuit that accuses the agency of neglecting signs of sexual abuse involving at least nine infants and toddlers.
“Child welfare litigation creates unique problems for the State of Oregon,” according to court documents filed by Oregon’s Department of Justice. “DHS must respond to discovery requests while trying to adhere to a myriad of state and federal laws, which require that the requested information be kept confidential.”
The plaintiffs want the documents made public, with “sensible redactions,” stating that otherwise Oregonians may never know how a Salem man committed such acts in what could be the largest case of sexual abuse by a foster parent in the state’s history.
The case started in April 2011 when a girl told her adoptive parents that she was sexually molested in a shower by her foster father, Jame Earl Mooney.
Salem police arrested Mooney in May 2011, and he confessed to sexually abusing multiple children in his care between 2007 and 2011. Mooney was sentenced to 50 years in prison in January 2012.
In June, Portland-based attorney Steven Rizzo filed civil lawsuits in Multnomah County and U.S. District Court against DHS on behalf of nine children.
The lawsuit accuses the agency of improperly vetting Mooney as a foster parent and ignoring signs of abuse in the children, such as complaints of pain when using the bathroom.
The plaintiffs asked for $22 million in damages for negligence, abuse of a vulnerable person and deprivation of civil rights.
The lawsuit also laid the ground to add up to 50 additional victims, alleging that its possible all of the children in Mooney’s care were abused.
As part of the discovery process, Rizzo filed a 53-page document requesting 319 pieces of evidence from the state — including the names of all the children DHS placed in Mooney’s care and the names of all the DHS employees who interacted with Mooney.
Attorneys for DHS said no.
“It is not the obligation of the defendants to determine which persons who may have been offended by the conduct of Mooney or if anyone else should or will join the lawsuit or file separately,” according to court documents filed by attorneys at the DOJ.
The plaintiffs, sisters Cassandra and Rebecca, adopted two of Mooney’s victims and they contend in court documents that DHS never told them the kids were sexually abused before adoption.
The sisters write in their affidavits that the 4-year-old girl they adopted suffered nightmares and would cry when held.
“These were traumatic episodes,” Rebecca and Cassandra wrote. “We began to think that perhaps we were doing something wrong.”
The sisters were further worried after a therapist told them that their adopted daughter likely had been abused, and they called a caseworker with their concerns. Only then, the sisters contend in the lawsuit, did DHS inform them — four months after the adoption — that their daughter had been repeatedly sodomized.
DHS promised in court documents to release its files on the nine named children and on Mooney, but only after the judge rules on a protective order. That order would forbid anyone associated with the case from “discussing or revealing the contents of these documents,” and require the files be returned or destroyed within 30 days of a final verdict.
That would mean lawmakers, media and members of the public couldn’t learn how Mooney was approved as a foster parent or how DHS caseworkers checked on the children. If DHS conducted its own internal investigation after Mooney’s arrest, the report and its findings would also be covered by the protective order.
The case files contain protected information about the children’s biological parents, including records of neglect, criminal activity and drug abuse.
Eleven of the plaintiffs’ 18 biological parents signed affidavits waiving their rights to confidentiality, according to court documents. And the plantiff wants the names of the remaining parents to ask whether they would also waive their rights.
DOJ attorneys claim redacting the documents would place an unreasonable burden on DHS.
Oral arguments on the protective order are scheduled for Jan. 15.
astaver@StatesmanJournal.com, (503) 399-6610, or follow on Twitter @AnnaStaver
The Statesman Journal identified Cassandra and Rebecca, the adoptive parents of two of James Mooney’s victims, by their first names only to protect the identities of the children.