In 2012, Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) received a report that a 4-year-old girl said she saw a man in her previous foster home expose himself. About a year later, the state placed two more girls there.

The next report the department received about the home came a year later from the foster father himself. In 2014, John Henry Phillips called a social worker and said he had sexually assaulted the sisters, starting soon after they moved into his Arlington home at the ages of 9 and 14.

Phillips, now 49, admitted to sexually abusing a third girl in his care at the time. He pleaded guilty in 2015 to two counts of first-degree rape of a child, third-degree rape of a child and third-degree child molestation, and a state investigation has since found he likely also abused the girl referenced in the 2012 report when she was 3. Phillips is now incarcerated at Monroe Correctional Complex, with a projected earliest release date of 2036.

Attorneys representing the sisters believe the state failed to properly investigate the earlier report of potential abuse and that a “cascade of mistakes” by multiple state employees led to the girls being placed in Phillips’ home. The state agreed to pay the girls $8.5 million as part of a stipulated judgement, which was signed last month by a Snohomish County Superior Court judge. It also agreed to review its processes for investigating similar cases.

Now 15, the youngest sister said she hopes the state will better investigate cases in the future. The girl, who is not being named because she is a minor who survived sexual abuse, said she hopes to become a social worker herself and wants to share her story to help others.

“I’ve heard about this happening to other people, and I want them to know they’re not alone,” she said.

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The settlement is one in a series of costly payouts for the state, which spent $84 million in the 2019 fiscal year just on settlements involving the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) — making up nearly half of the state’s spending on claims that year. It’s an increase from years prior, when the agency’s services fell under DSHS, which paid out $43 million across all its agencies in 2018. 

DCYF attributes the spike to a state Supreme Court decision last year that found the agency is liable for injuries to children after they’re placed in foster homes, said spokeswoman Debra Johnson.

“The agency and its leadership are committed to reviewing the effectiveness of our practices and adopting new ones when needed to protect children,” Johnson said.

Seattle attorney Michael Pfau, who represented the girls along with Bellingham attorney Paula McCandlis, said he’s cautiously optimistic.

“I’m worried the state is making the same mistakes in its care of its most vulnerable children that it’s made over the last 30, 40 years,” he said. “I’ll take the state at their word, but what I would like to see is a stronger statement that because of how poorly they handled this case, they will use this to make policy changes.”

The earlier report

In July 2012, a DSHS intake worker received a call from the aunt of a 4-year-old girl who had lived in Phillips’ home for about four months. She said the child told her a “man pulled his wiener out of his pants” at the home, and the girl made a comment indicating she saw him engage in a sexual act with someone, according to the intake report. When the aunt asked the girl if that happened to her, she said no.

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The intake worker and his supervisor decided that because the child denied being abused, the allegation did not qualify for investigation by Child Protective Services (CPS), according to their declarations filed in court. Instead, it would be investigated as a potential foster-home licensing infraction.

A social worker interviewed the 4-year-old in August. According to the worker’s notes, the girl said yes when asked if Phillips “did something” with his genitals, but would not go into further detail. The interview ended when the girl said she was done talking. The worker did not schedule a follow-up interview.

In September, Phillips and his wife were interviewed by a foster-home licensor, who spent about half an hour interviewing the couple together. She said it was mostly Phillips’ wife who spoke, and she denied the girl had been exposed to sexual behavior.

When assigned the report, the licensor told a CPS supervisor she thought it was more appropriate for CPS to handle, she said in deposition. She said she left the interview uncomfortable, wondering if more follow-up should be done. But she said she was told further interviews, including with the children, were not necessary because it was a licensing complaint.

She closed the case, finding the report “not valid.”

“Stressing” about placement

The sisters, one of whom has a developmental disability, were removed from their mother’s care in March 2013.

In an email obtained by the girls’ lawyers, a DSHS placement coordinator wrote that she was “stressing” about finding placement for the girls. The email was dated a little over a week before they were placed with the Phillipses in June 2013. The coordinator said she wasn’t familiar with the family, but heard good things and saw the couple had no open investigations.

A social worker who conducted monthly visits to the home said she did not observe signs of abuse and that the girls told her they felt safe. In her deposition, she said she hadn’t been told about the earlier allegation.

In August 2014, Phillips called a social worker and said he had sexually abused the girls. One of the girls had just told his wife, and he said he would report himself.

The girls were taken out of the Phillipses’ care.

Phillips told detectives that he was aware that the girls were sexually and physically abused before they were placed in his home. He said he sexually abused them, as well as the other girl in his care, from fall 2013 through the summer, according to court documents.

One of the girls told detectives she was scared to tell anyone what was happening because Phillips told her she would have to go to another foster home if she did.

The girls were placed with another family, who adopted them. In March 2016, they filed a lawsuit against DSHS. The case went on for years, with the state arguing they followed their processes and that their duty to investigate the 4-year-old’s report did not extend to the sisters.

The sisters’ attorneys argued that state employees made mistakes at every step in the process, and that they should have investigated the report as potential abuse; conducted a follow-up interview with the 4-year-old; interviewed the Phillipses separately as well as the children in the home; and not placed the girls in the home after what they describe as an insufficient investigation.

The state agreed to settle in September, the month the case was scheduled to go to trial.