An attorney representing an 11-year-old boy whose Lane County adoptive parents were sent to prison for horrific abuse that hospitalized him for a month is suing the Oregon Department of Human Services for $4.75 million.
Portland attorney David Paul filed the suit Friday in Multnomah County Circuit Court on behalf of the boy, identified by his initials, R.H. According to the suit and investigative reports, the boy suffered a broken pelvis and ribs, was burned badly on his foot and chest, force-fed infant formula, required to sleep in a bathtub and thrown repeatedly in a creek and hosed down. The boy also was forced to stand outside while the other children in the home ate meals — including Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners — or snacked on popcorn and soda during “family nights.”
Alona and Rodger Hartwig had six biological children and four foster children. Some were abused, but Paul said they saved the worst of their abuse for the boy.
“Nobody was treated like this one kid,” Paul said. “They just heaped it on him.”
DHS certified the Hartwigs as foster parents in 2003. From 2003 to 2009, DHS received at least nine reports of child abuse or neglect in the Hartwig home, but child-protective workers failed to step in to protect the boy or other children, the suit alleges. For example, in 2004, DHS received a report of a 3-year-old foster child who was losing weight, had a black eye, scrapes and sores all over his body, shoes that were too small and blood blisters on his feet.
R.H. moved in the following year -- in 2005 -- and eventually was adopted by the Hartwigs, with DHS's approval.
The boys suffering came to light in 2010, after someone called the Lane County Sheriff’s Office, and deputies discovered the boy with broken bones and a bad infection from untreated burns. He ended up spending a month at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland.
In a DHS review into what went wrong, DHS acknowledged that repeated reports of possible abuse or neglect at the Hartwig home weren't adequately investigated or considered as child-welfare workers re-certified the Hartwigs as foster parents and allowed them to adopt. The review suggested ways to prevent such abuse.
In an email Monday, DHS spokesman Gene Evans said protecting children is his department's highest priority.
"Any abuse or neglect of a child in foster care is unacceptable," Evans wrote.
Evans said DHS has improved its screening and investigation of reports of abuse and neglect. It also has instituted "more comprehensive background checks of foster parents before they are ever certified to care for a child." DHS officials note that the reported number of children who are abused or neglected while in foster care has been declining, dropping from one in 100 in 2007, to one in 200 in 2010, the latest figures available.
R.H., who is now 11, is still in the foster-care system. The suit describes his physical and psychological injuries as "permanent and progressive." The suit seeks $250,000 for medical bills and counseling, $1.5 million for loss of earning capacity over his lifetime and $3 million for pain and suffering. The boy is "severely traumatized" and unable to form close relationships, the suit states.
The suit doesn't seek compensation from the Hartwigs, who likely have little means to pay. Alona Hartwig, 48, pleaded guilty to first-degree assault and criminal mistreatment, and is serving a nearly 11-year prison term. Rodger Eugene Hartwig Jr., 53, pleaded guilty to second-degree assault and was sentenced to nearly six years in prison.