Victims of predatory foster parent sue former DHS employees

Seven sexual assault victims of former Arkansas foster parent Clarence “Charlie” Garretson filed a federal lawsuit Monday alleging negligence and due process violations on the part of several former employees of the Arkansas Department of Human Services as well as their assailant’s wife, Lisa Garretson.

The suit was filed in Fort Smith less than a week after Clarence Garretson was sentenced to life in federal prison for assaulting a series of minors in his care, most of them foster children placed in the Garretson household by DHS — the agency responsible for Arkansas’s foster care system — between 1998 and 2004. DHS placed some 35 children in the home over that period, and prosecutors have said there is evidence that at least 14 of them were sexually abused by Garretson. At Garretson’s sentencing hearing May 31, one victim — who is also one of the plaintiffs in the civil suit — told the court that she had repeatedly attempted to inform DHS authorities of the abuse, which began when she was 11.

“Arkansas DHS put me and many others in the hands of a monster,” she said at the hearing. U.S. District Judge P.K. Holmes, who presided over the hearing, commented that the case constituted an “extreme failure on the part of the Department of Human Services” and said of Lisa Garretson, “if she didn’t know what was going on, she should have known.” Holmes was also assigned the civil suit filed Monday.

The plaintiffs’ allegations of DHS negligence go further. Their suit alleges that DHS approved the Garretsons to be foster parents despite DHS substantiating a report one year earlier that Clarence Garretson had sexually assaulted two children at knifepoint.

The lawsuit names as defendants former DHS Director Kurt Knickrehm, who headed the agency from 1999 to 2005, and Richard Weiss, who served as interim director for six months in 1998. The other six DHS defendants are Debbie Williams, Nikkole Hurst, Carol Gillis, Patsy Chase and Robbie McKay, all of whom allegedly served as caseworkers for one or more of the children abused by Garretson, and Dick Pickarts, the DHS director of Logan County at the time of the abuse, according to the lawsuit.

The complaint alleges that the DHS caseworkers and the county director "obtained actual knowledge" that at least one of the children in the Garretson home was sexually assaulted, but took no action.

A long-haul truck driver, Garretson would take children on cross-country trips, sexually assault them in the cab of his truck and coerce them into silence afterward, according to federal prosecutors. DHS revoked the foster home’s license in 2004 — yet Garretson was not charged with a crime until he raped another child in 2014. That victim reported the abuse to her mother in 2016, leading to an FBI investigation that uncovered the pattern of earlier assaults that occurred when the Garretsons operated their foster home a decade earlier.

Garretson pleaded guilty in October to five counts of interstate transportation of a minor with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity. In exchange, federal prosecutors dropped six additional counts and agreed to not prosecute Lisa Garretson.

Many of the facts of the criminal case against Clarence Garretson remain unknown to the public because key court documents are under seal. The civil suit filed Monday includes a detail that was not stated in the criminal case: The minor who reported Garretson’s actions in 2016 was herself the child of a teenage victim of Garretson more than a decade earlier, who became pregnant by “a relative of the Garretsons” while she was living in the household as a foster child from 2000 to 2004. (How the minor daughter came to be in Garretson’s company in 2014 is not made clear.)

The complaint alleges negligence on the part of those defendants with direct contact with the former foster children — Williams, Pickarts, Hurst, Gillis, Chase, McKay and Lisa Garretson — stating that each “had reasonable cause to suspect that Charlie was sexually abusing children” and “had a duty to report such abuse.” Each “willfully and knowingly failed to report such abuse,” which violated an Arkansas statute requiring foster parents and DHS employees to “immediately notify the Child Abuse Hotline if he or she has reasonable cause to suspect that a child has been subjected to child maltreatment.”

In addition to negligence, the complaint also states two separate causes of action against all defendants, including former DHS Director Knickrehm and former interim director Weiss. The first is a federal civil rights claim. Because foster children are in the custody of DHS, which has “the fundamental duty to ensure that each foster child is in an appropriate placement and confirm that each foster child … is safe and healthy,” the agency’s failure to do so constituted a violation of the children’s “fundamental rights to physical safety and to be free from the infliction of unnecessary pain.” The complaint states that the defendants demonstrated “a pervasive pattern of indifference” to the victims and their due process rights. The second claim is based on a federal statute that allows minor victims of certain federal crimes (or those who were minors at the time the crime was committed) to seek civil remedies.

The plaintiffs are seeking damages that include the costs of medical expenses, pain and suffering, mental anguish and legal fees, along with punitive damages. An amount is not specified in the complaint. The plaintiffs are seeking a jury trial.

DHS itself is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit, and the agency typically does not comment on litigation. Confidentiality laws prohibit DHS from commenting on individual foster care cases, meaning the agency cannot publicly refute specific allegations of misconduct. When asked about the Garretson case in October, DHS spokeswoman Amy Webb said, “This is a tragic situation, and DHS would never intentionally put a child in harm’s way. Sadly, there are people who prey upon children and may try to use the foster system to do so. When that happens today, we act swiftly to ensure youth in foster care are in safe homes.

“The system for vetting foster families is much stronger and more thorough today than it was 20 years ago. ... We conduct state and federal background checks, child maltreatment checks, home studies, and training. We also do re-evaluations of homes annually and new background and maltreatment checks every two years. In addition, we have a more sophisticated computer system. We also now have a system in place that automatically notifies [the DHS division responsible for foster care] when there is a call into the child abuse hotline that includes an allegation against a foster parent.”

As of Monday night, attempts to reach two of the named defendants for comment were unsuccessful.

This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans.

The Arkansas Nonprofit News Network is an independent, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans. Our work is re-published by partner newsrooms across the state.