VANCOUVER, Wash. (CN) - Social workers failed to respond to years of warnings that two parents were beating and starving their adopted twins, the children claim in court.
In March 2013, Sandra and Jeffrey Weller were sentenced to 20 and 21 years in prison for abusing Christopher and Christa Graf, a pair of twins the Wellers adopted when they were 2 years old.
The Wellers were convicted of unlawful imprisonment and multiple counts of assault. Jeffrey was also found guilty of strangling Christa.
At trial, the twins detailed horrific abuse they suffered at the hands of their adoptive parents. The jury heard evidence that the Wellers fed the twins only once a day: canned vegetables with shortening. The Wellers' biological children ate prepared meals at the dinner table while the twins were ordered to eat their food standing up.
The Wellers also beat the twins with scrap lumber and a bicycle lock they used to lock the refrigerator, according to court testimony.
Christopher and Christa, along with two of Jeffrey's and one of Sandra's biological children sued the state Department of Social and Health Services in Clark County Court.
The department received many warnings that the Wellers were abusing the children, but failed to take any real action until 2011, according to the complaint.
A social worker met with Sandra and her ex-husband Tim in 2003 after Sandra said the family was "in crisis" because of the twins' inappropriate behavior.
A social worker noted that Tim was "afraid to" divorce Sandra, and offered the couple "marital services and other counseling," before closing the investigation, the complaint states.
"If DSHS had obtained Sandra's CPS history from the State of California, it would have learned that Sandra was the subject of at least 8 referrals involving abuse and neglect of Christa, Christopher, and other foster children in her care between 1998 and 2002," the complaint states.
"DSHS would have also learned that, as a result of these referrals, the State of California revoked Sandra's foster care license law enforcement and took Christa and Christopher into protective custody."
Social workers failed to investigate several other referrals involving complaints of abuse of the twins, according to the complaint.
On one occasion, Sandra allegedly told 8-year-old Christa, "If I had a knife right now, you would be gone," and she withheld food from both twins as punishment.
After one referral, a social worker concluded that in light of the twins' mental and emotional disturbances, Sandra "is very appropriate in understanding their needs or wants" and getting them "appropriate mental health therapy."
One social worker noted "how negative Sandra was about the adoptive children, especially Christa," and said Sandra "had an excuse or a reason for every question about the children's behavior."
"It didn't appear that she saw herself as at all contributing to the situation. It was concerning that Christa, who is 10 years old, talks like a 2-year-old and pretends that she's a baby," the social worker wrote.
Another social worker concluded in an assessment that Sandra "has mental health issues of her own, and is emotionally abusive to the children, but perhaps not to the level that a case for court intervention could be made," the complaint states.
The case was closed after the social worker found evidence of neglect to be "inconclusive."
Despite Sandra's telling two social workers that she had been diagnosed with "narcissism and masochism" and accused of having Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, the social workers did not investigate those statements, the complaint states.
Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy is a condition in which a person fabricates or exaggerates supposed problems of people in their care.
There were other referrals between 2003 and 2011, none of which triggered law enforcement investigations.
In October 2011, the department received a referral from a therapist who reported that Christa had left a note saying Sandra and Jeffrey beat her with a wooden board that was "literally covered in dried blood."
The complaint states that social worker Margie Dunn visited the Weller home, and discovered a note on her car stating: "PLEASE Help. Behind the laundry room is a big wooden stick covered in blood!! They use it on me and Christopher, Eli and Ian can confirm. If you leave without us we'll all ran [sic] away. PLEASE!!! Get DNA from the stick. HELP signed: Christopher Christa Weller Ian Eli."
Another social worker joined Dunn, and Vancouver police were called.
"When plaintiffs were interviewed outside the presence of Jeffrey and Sandra that evening, and over the following days, weeks and months, they disclosed years of horrific abuse and neglect, consistent with numerous, detailed warnings that DSHS had been receiving for years," the complaint states.
The children were taken out of Jeffrey and Sandra's custody, after which the department found out about Sandra's past referrals involving abuse of foster children in California. A jury found the couple guilty of multiple counts of child abuse.
The jury found there was "an ongoing pattern of psychological or physical abuse of the children."
During Sandra and Jeffrey's trial, police officer Sandra Aldridge testified that the twins' bedroom was "the worst I've seen in 16 years" in law enforcement.
The children seek damages for negligence.
They are represented by David P. Moody of Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro in Seattle.