She first met him at a corner store 30 years ago, when she was 13 and wandering the streets of Tacoma’s then-notorious Hilltop.
The 37-year-old man, a convicted drug dealer, took her home, forced her into sex and before long, had the girl living with him, she said. And soon, he allegedly was plying the girl’s drug-addicted mother with crack cocaine as part of an unspoken arrangement.
“It was, `Here you go — and I’ll keep your daughter,’ ” the girl, now a 42-year-old woman, said in an interview last week. “Eventually, he started feeding me crack, got me addicted and started abusing me sexually and physically. I pretty much lost the next 27 years of my life.”
But before she fell into her alleged abuser’s grip — even while she was pregnant by him at age 14 — the state agency charged with protecting children in Washington had been alerted to the girl’s troubled home life.
At least five times, from 1989 to 1991, the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) received referrals or complaints — from family friends, a school counselor, a teacher — describing abuse and neglect facing the girl and her three sisters.
“They failed to help us,” she said.
Only after her abuser died in 2016 did the woman — who asked to be identified only by her initials, K.H. — begin to “take the blinders off” and recognize her life of suffering, she said.
She called a law firm, which investigated and found the state’s old case reports, using them as the basis for a lawsuit in 2017. It alleged she’d suffered for years as a child because DSHS “failed to properly investigate reports of abuse that were made on K.H.’s behalf.”
“It was crystal clear to us that this was a throwaway family to (DSHS),” said Vincent Nappo, a lawyer with the firm Pfau Cochran Vertetis Amala. “It’s hard to understand how report after report can be made about a family and just be virtually ignored.”
The state agreed to pay the woman $1.7 million as part of a stipulated judgment, which was signed on Monday by a Pierce County Superior Court judge. The state admits no wrongdoing under the agreement.
Secretary Ross Hunter of the Department of Children, Youth, and Families — the agency that now handles child-welfare cases in Washington — said in a statement Monday he “hopes this settlement allows KH to lead a life that will provide the support she needs.”
The settlement comes just days after DSHS agreed to pay $8 million to a developmentally disabled Seattle man who was living in squalid conditions despite several reports to Adult Protective Services.
Report after report of trouble at home
In May 1989, a family friend first reported that K.H.’s mother had been using welfare money and food stamps “for her drug habit instead of on the children,” records show. DSHS opened an investigation, but a social worker did little before soon closing the case, Nappo said.
The state received at least three more reports alleging abuse and neglect involving the family over the next 15 months, records show. They included a counselor’s report in January 1990 that K.H.’s older sister, then 15, allegedly had been sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend. By then, K.H.’s sister had fled the home on her own. Social workers later talked with the mother, trying to get her to sign a consent form naming a family friend as her oldest daughter’s foster provider, records show. The mother refused and denied having a drug problem.
Case workers apparently didn’t assess whether the woman’s other children, including K.H., were in danger, Nappo said.
At the time, K.H., then 13, already was living with 37-year-old Carl Watson Jr., a drug dealer with a violent temper, she said. About a year later, in January 1991, a teacher at the girl’s middle school reported to the state the girl was four months pregnant and “stays with the father of the baby, who is quite a bit older,” according to an intake report.
A social worker again interviewed K.H.’s mother, who claimed her child’s relationship with the man was consensual. Records don’t reflect that the worker ever interviewed the girl or Watson, however. The girl’s reported abuse was deemed “founded,” but the case was assessed as “low risk” and closed.
“It appears the social worker completely lost focus,” said Nappo, noting the investigation seemed geared toward assessing risk for the unborn baby. “You’ve got a 14-year-old who became pregnant by a 37-year-old man. She should have been the focus of a rape investigation.”
K.H. ultimately dropped out of school after the eighth grade, gave birth to three boys by Watson and spent her teens and early 20s trying to take care of them, she said. Meanwhile, Watson plied her with drugs and sold crack on the streets, she said.
“I was like a zombie,” K.H. recalled. “I had no feelings, just did what I was told to do, when I was told to do it.”
A police officer encountered K.H. at least twice in 1992, first reporting to social workers the teen had taken her infant son and tried running away from Watson, then 39, after he allegedly beat her. K.H. went into drug treatment, but the state took no steps to investigate her apparent abuse, she said. While she was in treatment and subsequent foster care, the state awarded custody of her child to Watson, K.H. added.
“Then, he started coming around the foster home, and it was over at that point,” K.H. said. “I started back on the drugs.”
When Watson went to prison for drug felonies from 1994 to 1999, K.H. said she was too strung out to care for her kids. She left them with her mother, while “prostituting, doing whatever I could do to keep myself high,” she said.
K.H.’s marriage to another man, who helped her get off the streets, fell apart when Watson got out of prison. He found her and she soon was smoking crack again, she said.
“He never let me go,” she said.
After Watson died in 2016, K.H. wrote a Facebook post describing him as a dear friend. She later broke down while reading the post, realizing she’d been living in “an alternate world.”
“I needed to stand up,” she said.
Now drug free, K.H. is raising two daughters, pursuing a college degree and wants to start a nonprofit to help abused women. She said she now enjoys a strong relationship with her mother, who also has beaten addiction.
“This whole process has given me so much validity as a human being, just to know I was not garbage,” she said.