TULSA (CN) - Oklahoma subjected children to abuse in a former foster home in a trailer with 10 monkeys, just part of a menagerie that included "11 lemurs, marmosets, coatimundis, raccoons," donkeys and other animals, guardians claim in court.
Lead plaintiff Rachel Matthews sued the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, several of its Delaware County employees and parents Deidre and Jerry Matthews, of Jay, on Tuesday in Federal Court.
Matthews says the family moved into a trailer home in 2011 when their home burned down.
"Anywhere from eight to eleven children and two to five adults lived in the Matthews' home," the complaint states. "Some of the children were placed with the Matthews by DHS through the foster care program, some ended up being adopted by the Matthews, some had a legal guardianship with the Matthews and some of the children were just living with them. Also present on the property were twenty to fifty animals, which included at least three monkeys, eleven lemurs, marmosets, coatimundis, raccoons, dogs, cats, horses, donkeys as well as various other animals."
The guardians of eight children, identified by initials, say DHS received at least 17 reports of abuse during a 10-year span, including "mental and physical child abuse, child neglect, dangerous living conditions, lack of supervision, beating of children, failure to protect children, failure to provide adequate medical care, failure to educate minor children, unsanitary living conditions and drug abuse" at the home.
"Interviews of collateral sources and the children presented clear cases of neglect and abuse of the children as well as a dangerous home environment, lack of supervision and education," the complaint states. "However, DHS failed to protect plaintiffs and left them with the Matthews to suffer continued abuse, neglect and deplorable conditions."
DHS spokeswoman Sheree Powell told Courthouse News the agency is investigating the lawsuit and "will respond accordingly."
"Also, we need to clear up the facts," Powell said Wednesday. "The Matthews are not foster parents for DHS and all of those children involved in the lawsuit are not foster children.
"Ms. Matthews and her husband were foster parents from 2003-2006 until they adopted two children through our agency. They did not own exotic animals when they were fostering and adopting. The Matthews home was voluntarily closed as a foster or adoptive placement after they adopted the two children because they did not have room for any more children. The Matthews have not been foster or adoptive parents for DHS since 2006. Also, we did not place any of the other seven children in that home and do not know where they came from."
The plaintiffs cite a June 18, 2009, referral to DHS that 10 monkeys were living in the home.
"Along with the monkeys inside the home, the Matthews had many animals outside including, two larger monkeys, a miniature donkey, a Shetland pony, dogs, cats and a buffalo," the complaint states. "The monkeys living inside the home attacked two people. One bite victim was plaintiff G.M. The bite on G.M.'s arm was very deep and needed medical attention. Deidre Matthews refused to take G.M. to the hospital. Instead, Deidre Matthews gave G.M. at least six shots of a veterinary grade nerve block to deaden the affected area and then stitched up the wound using the needles and string that she used to perform C-sections on dogs. Deidre Matthews does not have any formal medical training."
Rachel Matthews says she was bitten twice by the same monkey and never was taken to a hospital or doctor for medical treatment.
The complaint cites a Feb. 16, 2012, referral to DHS that claimed food a child brought to school for snack time had "gnawing" on the packages from rats. Matthews claims that referral was "screened out as duplicative" and no action was taken.
Criminal child abuse and neglect charges are pending against the foster parents in Delaware County Court, according to the lawsuit. It adds that a county court took the plaintiffs into emergency custody in April 2014 after DHS employees in Craig County reported indications of "rampant child neglect and abuse."
Their report included allegations of "instances of mental abuse, such as, forcing plaintiff Rachel Matthews to kill her own pet by bashing its head into the trunk of a tree; instances of mental abuse when Deidre Matthews would verbally traumatize plaintiff E.M. and call her a 'psycho'; instances of mental and physical abuse, such as routinely handcuffing plaintiff E.M. to a bed and forcibly locking her in dog cages; and instances of sexual abuse, such as forcing plaintiffs to stand outside naked or parading plaintiffs around the house naked; and instances of education neglect and keeping plaintiffs home from school so no one would see the bruises, welts, and wounds left on them by Jerry and Deidre Matthews."
The plaintiffs also claim DHS employees would "tip off" the parents about investigations and questioned the children in the parents' presence, in violation of agency policy.
Seven of the 18 employees named in the lawsuit have retired or resigned, Powell said.
"It should not be assumed that employees named in the lawsuit who resigned or retired did so as a result of the Matthews' case," she said.
The plaintiffs seek damages for violations of their civil rights and the Government Tort Claims Act.
They are represented by Conner L. Helms with Helms Underwood in Oklahoma City.Follow @davejourno
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