Your Courts, Their Secrets
Failures by state, caregiver kept secret in child-rape case
Seattle Times staff reporters
ALAN BERNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES
ALAN BERNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES, 2004
THOMAS JAMES HURST / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Rosenwald warns about unfinished background checks for YouthCare staff.
James Gregory's application letter to YouthCare in June 2001.
In December 2000, Rosenwald notes that several YouthCare employees have yet to clear criminal-background checks.
Kathleen Spears, DSHS spokeswoman, plans to send a press release about YouthCare. Before she can, Nancy Zahn, head of DSHS's group-home licensing office, lifts its "stop placement."
Rosenwald protests her supervisors' decision to quickly lift a "stop placement" on YouthCare.
YouthCare CEO Victoria Wagner tries to boost her staff's morale.
DSHS sends a letter to Lynn and her family.
The Attorney General's Office explains its litigation in the YouthCare case.
Barbara Rosenwald, the state inspector for YouthCare, is criticized over the bungled background check. She responds with a detailed explanation of her work.
Two years after Lynn's rape, Rosenwald's successor continues to find problems.
Like books on a shelf, every court file tells a story. In King County, file No. 03-2-27609-0 tells how a 13-year-old girl, a slip of a kid with a lost look in her eyes, wound up being raped while in the state's care and protection.
For the state's social-services agency, it's a story of bureaucratic bungling and a lack of backbone. For YouthCare, a high-powered nonprofit that operates several licensed group homes in Seattle, it's a story of unheeded warnings and the consequences of not paying $33 for a criminal-background check. For the state's lawyers, it's a tale of audacity, with attorneys under then-Attorney General Christine Gregoire claiming the teenage victim was partly at fault for being raped by a 29-year-old youth worker.
But important as the story is, this court file has been under seal for more than two years, banned from public viewing. A judge granted a motion by the girl's attorney that said the file "demonstrates unfavorable facts" about both the state of Washington and YouthCare and should be hidden away "to protect all parties from embarrassment."
Nearly all of the file was opened in July after a four-month court battle by The Seattle Times, which argued that such sweeping secrecy should never have been granted. When court files are sealed improperly — as this one was — the public suffers, deprived of information on the workings of its government and on the conduct of contractors entrusted with children's care.
The newspaper pursued this case as part of a continuing investigation of sealed court files. At least 420 civil suits have been sealed in their entirety in King County Superior Court since 1990, the newspaper has found. Almost all were sealed in violation of laws that restrict secrecy and recognize the importance of open courts.
The Times has filed motions to open dozens of those cases, to tell their stories of alleged medical negligence, unsafe consumer products, and wrongdoing in schools, churches and corporate boardrooms.
"I just did not realize it was so loosey-goosey"
For years, Barbara Rosenwald, a licensing inspector for the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), voiced concerns about YouthCare. DSHS ensured that YouthCare met licensing standards and also paid the nonprofit to care for wards of the state.
YouthCare helped troubled adolescents, especially runaways. Its board of directors included powerful business executives, state senators and state Supreme Court Justice Bobbe Bridge. Victoria Wagner, the chief executive officer, was once a runaway herself. She had helped YouthCare grow from an annual budget of $500,000 to $5 million. Pearl Jam and the actor Tom Skerritt pitched in on fundraising.
YouthCare helped more than 1,500 kids a year in its group homes, shelter and street-outreach programs. The group-home residents — maybe three dozen at any given time — had often been victims of abuse. The homes were meant to be safe havens, a place for kids to get direction and supervision from adults they could trust.
But Rosenwald documented chaotic conditions and lax practices that threatened the kids' safety: slipshod record keeping; inadequate staffing levels; assaults among residents not reported to police; and youth workers and supervisors unqualified for their demanding jobs.
The Times obtained Rosenwald's records and thousands of other documents — e-mails, memos, letters, investigative records and deposition transcripts — through the court file and a public-disclosure request to the state.
As early as 1996, Rosenwald expressed alarm that YouthCare allowed some workers who hadn't passed criminal-background checks to be left alone with kids.
In May 2000, Rosenwald was particularly unnerved by a visit to YouthCare's Threshold home, a long-term residential facility. The home's new director was a "novice" in over her head, Rosenwald wrote. Loose supervision allowed one girl to be sexually exploited while away from the home. That incident had not been reported to DSHS.
"I was at YouthCare yesterday — found some really really questionable supervision practices, philosophy, etc.," Rosenwald wrote to her boss. "As I explained to them — they would never pass a [headquarters] review. Like, it would be their programs — gone! zap! poof! I just did not realize it was so loosey-goosey."
In June 2000, DSHS managers met with YouthCare's top leaders, from Wagner on down, and stressed the need for YouthCare to hire qualified staff members.
"All-around nice guy" — with nine criminal convictions
Two weeks after that meeting, James Leonard Gregory Jr. applied to YouthCare for a job. "I would bring professionalism, dedication, creativity and lots of energy to your staff," he wrote.
Gregory's résumé showed he had worked as a corrections officer in South Dakota. His job application said he had no criminal convictions in the past seven years. His employment references described him as honest and trustworthy. One called him an "all-around nice guy."
But unbeknownst to YouthCare, Gregory had been fired from that corrections job for spitting on an inmate. He had been convicted of nine misdemeanors, including reckless endangerment, passing bad checks and making obscene or harassing phone calls. And his three references? Two girlfriends and a brother, Gregory later acknowledged.
YouthCare hired Gregory as a caregiver, at $18,000 a year. He began work in July 2000 at Threshold, the group home that had just caused Rosenwald such anxiety. The two-story brick home, on a dead-end street in Rainier Valley, was home to kids between 12 and 17, nearly all wards of the state.
As required, YouthCare submitted Gregory's name for a criminal-background check. Rosenwald processed the request. Within weeks she learned from the Washington State Patrol of Gregory's reckless-endangerment conviction — a disqualifying offense. (Renton police records say he fired shots while chasing people he suspected of stealing a friend's car.)
Rosenwald asked YouthCare in September for a signed waiver from Gregory, so she could disclose details of his rap sheet. YouthCare sent waivers twice. But Rosenwald, buried in a backlog of hundreds of unfinished background checks, later said she saw neither.
So Gregory kept working.
For 5 ½ months, DSHS failed to let YouthCare know the seriousness of Gregory's record. YouthCare, meanwhile, failed to push DSHS for details, even knowing something had popped up on his background check.
YouthCare could have learned of Gregory's criminal history on its own. The year he was hired, a private company had offered to do background checks for YouthCare with a turnaround time of two or three days. Gregory's would have cost $33. But YouthCare didn't take up the offer.
While Gregory worked at Threshold, his nine convictions became 10.
Four months into his job, Gregory picked up belongings from an apartment he once shared with a girlfriend — one of his sterling job references. After loading his car, he returned to the apartment, locked the door, and said how glad he was they could be so civil about the breakup, a Kent police report says. Then he slapped her across the face, twice.
He knocked her down, kneed her, then turned up the radio to drown out her screams.
Gregory was convicted of assault in January 2001 and sentenced to 365 days in jail, all suspended.
Meanwhile, his criminal-background check was still on a desk at DSHS, lost in a paperwork shuffle.
"If you ever looked in her eyes, she's lost"
Three weeks after Gregory's assault conviction, DSHS placed a 13-year-old girl in Threshold, leaving her in Gregory's care. Within days, he began grooming her, offering massages and kisses. He called her "Sexy Mama."
Her middle name was Lynn. The Seattle Times does not normally identify rape victims, so we are using only that identifier.
She was a skinny kid, with a background typical of a state ward. Her mother, a housecleaner with 13 kids and a gambling problem, had given Lynn up to DSHS. Lynn, in a court filing, said her mother would force her to stay home from school to care for six younger siblings. The two fought violently, she said.
Lynn's family life was so chaotic that she once ran into a brother but didn't realize they were related until they began talking. She hadn't seen him in about 10 years.
Her mom described Lynn this way: "If you ever looked in her eyes, she's lost."
Lynn filled out papers to move into Threshold on Feb. 8.
Because Gregory's background check hadn't cleared, he wasn't supposed to be alone with Lynn or other residents. But he was. On Feb. 16 he even escorted Lynn and two other girls to a musical performance at Seattle's Benaroya Hall, an evening they called "Girls Night Out."
"Keep it on the down low"
Gregory's shift on Feb. 17, 2001, was to begin at 3 p.m. But before work he got into a fight with and beat up another girlfriend — the YouthCare reference who had called him an "all-around nice guy."
She called police and went to a hospital, where she received five stitches for a split lip. Around 4 p.m., she filled out a domestic-violence form, saying Gregory had abused her at least six other times, leaving her with black eyes and bruises.
At about the same time, Gregory was at Threshold, working alone.
Lynn wanted to buy a soda. Gregory agreed to get one from the office. She followed him upstairs, got the drink and started to leave. Hold up, Gregory said. He locked the door and turned up the radio. "Where's my hug?" he asked.
This same afternoon, Rosenwald was scrambling to alert YouthCare administrators that they had uncleared staff members working alone at another group home, where a teenager had alleged being raped by a visitor. This cannot continue, Rosenwald told a YouthCare executive. He replied that "it would be taken care of immediately."
Inside the Threshold office, Gregory kissed Lynn and pulled down her pants. "I just laid there, because I was scared of him," Lynn said later. "I didn't know what to say. I didn't know what to do. I didn't know if he was going to hit me."
Afterward, Gregory told Lynn: "Keep it on the down low."
At 8:40 p.m., Seattle police arrived at Threshold and arrested Gregory — for the assault earlier that day, not for the rape. Before taking him away, police let Gregory find someone to cover his shift. He was, after all, working alone.
Later, Lynn let Gregory's replacement know what had happened upstairs. But he didn't call police or DSHS. He decided to let someone else handle it the next morning, he later told a state investigator.
Lynn was a "flirty, showtime girl," this worker later told DSHS, adding: "I think it was consensual even though she is only 13."
According to a roommate, Lynn spent the night crying.
It wasn't until 2:45 p.m. the next day that YouthCare took Lynn to the hospital. Police weren't called until 7 p.m., more than 24 hours after the rape.
"How do we justify this?"
Lynn's rape quickly reverberated through state government. The head of DSHS, Dennis Braddock, sent a written alert to then-Gov. Gary Locke's chief of staff — Braddock's third such alert about YouthCare in a week. The two others concerned a group home for young mothers, where one teen had reported being raped by a visitor.
DSHS considered banning admissions to all of YouthCare's programs but instead issued "stop placement" orders on just the two group homes with alleged rapes. These stop placements were the first in YouthCare's 27-year history.
A DSHS spokeswoman let administrators know Feb. 20 that she planned to issue a press release about the YouthCare incidents and the state's response. This news appeared to alarm Nancy Zahn — DSHS's head of group-home licensing statewide — who responded by e-mail:
"Please be aware that Youth Care has a very high powered board in Seattle; it is a long term agency with a ton of community support. Not to say that changes what we do but if we think [a particular boys ranch] had connections; we have seen nothing yet!"
The press release was never issued. What's more, DSHS quickly lifted the stop-placement orders after Wagner, YouthCare's CEO, called Zahn.
The admissions ban triggered by Lynn's rape lasted only four days — even though DSHS initially said the order would be reassessed only after its investigation was completed months later.
Rosenwald, the DSHS inspector, protested in an e-mail to her boss:
"The decision to reverse this action based on a call from a very influential CEO totally undermines our ability to work with this agency and weakens any case for them to actuate any changes. There is no way that they can take [regional DSHS licensers] seriously after this. We have absolutely no clout. How do we justify this when we take more serious action with other agencies for lesser things?"
Zahn declined comment for this story. So did Rosenwald.
Ten days after Lynn's rape, Wagner wrote YouthCare employees a letter, saying there was no single explanation for the series of group-home incidents. "The saying that 'bad things happen to good people' is true, they also happen to good organizations," Wagner wrote. "And sometimes they come in clusters."
DSHS investigators continued to turn up more problems at YouthCare' group homes and shelters. One employee described a graveyard-shift worker who slept so soundly while on duty that kids couldn't even wake her to get medication. Another employee said higher-ups told her to schedule staff members to work alone even if they hadn't cleared background checks — and to "cross our fingers that nothing happens."
DSHS ultimately found fault with individual YouthCare workers — lower-level ones, mostly — but decided that the nonprofit as a whole was not negligent, saying it had "no foreseeability" that Gregory would do what he did.
For YouthCare, a neglect finding could have been a virtual death sentence.
"A through-the-looking-glass quality"
In August 2001, Rosie Oreskovich, DSHS's chief of child welfare, wrote to Lynn and apologized for her being raped. "I know my apology cannot right this terrible wrong," she wrote.
But when Lynn sued DSHS and YouthCare two years later, the state's lawyers argued that the girl was partly at fault for what happened.
They contended that Lynn consented to sexual relations with Gregory, and they even objected to any description of what happened as "a sexual assault."
Lisa Erwin, a senior counsel with the Attorney General's Office, said in an interview that the state's lawyers never disputed that a statutory rape occurred. But they argued that any money the state might pay Lynn should be reduced because there was "consent to the touching, even though it was a crime."
"What happened to her was horrendous, whether she consented or not," Erwin said. But Lynn would be owed more were this a forcible attack, Erwin said. The state, she said, had evidence indicating it wasn't: a lack of tears or bruises consistent with an attack, and what Erwin referred to as a "relationship" between Lynn and Gregory.
The state's "fault-of-plaintiff" defense infuriated Lynn's lawyer, Jeffrey Herman, who pointed out that under Washington law, a 13-year-old cannot consent.
"This position has a through-the-looking-glass quality," Herman wrote to the court, adding: "If [Lynn] were capable of consenting to sexual relations on the date of the crime, Mr. Gregory might have an excellent civil-rights claim against the State for unlawfully imprisoning him."
Gregory had already pleaded guilty to second-degree rape of a child and been sentenced to 6 ½ years.
The state wanted details of Lynn's sexual history. Herman objected, saying this invaded Lynn's privacy. The judge, Robert Alsdorf, concluded the state's request went too far and restricted Lynn's answers to dates of prior encounters and whether they were consensual.
Alsdorf also fined the state $1,000, in part for contending in court documents that there was "no basis" for Lynn's claim of sexual assault.
In 2004, the parties settled the lawsuit. Herman said he didn't want to put Lynn through trial: "I thought it would hurt her. She had been through a lot of sorrow and trauma in her life."
At the same time, Herman filed a motion to seal the entire court file. YouthCare had agreed to settle "only upon execution of a confidentiality provision," Herman wrote. The file, he wrote, "demonstrates unfavorable facts about both defendants" and contains material "very troubling" to Lynn.
Alsdorf granted the motion, even though Lynn's identity had been protected from the outset, with only her initials used in all but two court documents.
Now retired from the bench, Alsdorf said recently that he sealed the file to protect a minor's privacy. As a practical matter, closing the whole file was easier than redacting individual documents. "In hindsight, yeah, it would have been better not to seal it," he said.
Last month, the court's presiding judge opened the file, granting a motion filed by The Times. The newspaper argued that potential embarrassment to the state and YouthCare was no reason to grant such extraordinary secrecy. YouthCare objected, citing Lynn's interests and its concern that she had not been found and notified of the unsealing request.
The file, when opened, showed that the lawsuit was settled for $290,000, with the state paying $140,000, and YouthCare, $150,000.
After attorney fees and costs, Lynn received $157,000.
"I feel horrible about this case," Wagner said in a recent interview. "I always have. The last thing I wanted was to have a child in my care abused. ... This case has haunted me."
"I can defently take care of myself"
Since the 2001 rape:
YouthCare hired the private company that had been offering to do criminal-background checks.
Some workers were fired in YouthCare's lower levels, but Wagner and two deputies left for top jobs at other nonprofit agencies.
Six days after Lynn's lawsuit was sealed, Wagner received a lifetime-achievement award for her work at YouthCare.
Rosenwald, the licensing inspector, received a letter from DSHS taking her to task over Gregory's bungled background check. The rebuke came 10 days before she retired from DSHS, after 31 years.
At YouthCare, problems with unscreened workers continued. In 2002, a supervisor was fired for kissing and hitting on a teenager living in a group home. He had been spending time alone with the girl — even though he had yet to clear his criminal-background check.
In 2003, the DSHS inspector who succeeded Rosenwald visited a YouthCare home and documented violations that caused "great concern." One employee had received a badge saying he was cleared to work with children, but in fact he wasn't, she wrote.
"This type of information is rather alarming," the inspector wrote. "No one," she added, "wants to experience" a repeat of what happened to Lynn.
Gregory remains in prison. He could get out as soon as October.
Lynn was emancipated — given the rights of an adult — at age 17. She wrote to the court in 2004: "I can defently take care of myself."
The next year, she burned through nearly $15,000 of her lawsuit settlement to pay for a hit-and-run accident she caused.
Two months ago she was charged with stealing a car. She failed to show up for her arraignment and has a warrant out for her arrest.
A reporter went to Lynn's last five addresses but couldn't find her.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company