Suit says DHS knew of abuse in Arkansas foster home; filing faults agency for time plaintiffs spent with rapist

Employees of the Arkansas Department of Human Services "condemned" 35 foster and adoptive children "to life with a known violent sexual predator" who sexually abused at least 18 of them, according to a lawsuit filed Monday in federal court in Fort Smith.

The Department of Human Services knew that Clarence "Charlie" Garretson, now 66, of Van Buren had sexually assaulted two children at knife point a year before approving him to be a foster parent in 1998, according to the suit, which was filed by David Carter, a lawyer in Texarkana, Texas.

"For several years following the approval, the Garretson home operated as a den of sexual depravity, with Arkansas DHS defendants serving up a seemingly endless supply of victims and Charlie sexually assaulting child after child," according to the lawsuit.

Between 1998 and 2004, the Department of Human Services received several complaints from victims about Garretson's sexual abuse, according to the suit.

"Despite these complaints, the Arkansas DHS defendants failed to remove any of the children from the Garretson home," according to the suit. "Instead, the victims were forced to stay in the custody of their abuser."

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Carter requests a jury trial and unspecified damages for the seven plaintiffs, one of whom is male.

Nine people are named as defendants in the case, including Garretson's wife, Lisa Garretson, and eight current or former employees of the Department of Human Services, including former Directors Richard Weiss and Kurt Knickrehm.

Lisa Garretson hasn't been charged in federal or state court.

The department can't comment on foster cases, said Brandi Hinkle, a spokesman for the state agency.

"DHS would never intentionally put a child in harm's way," she said in an email. "Sadly, there are people who prey upon children and may try to use the foster system to do so. When that happens, we act swiftly to ensure youth in foster care are in safe homes."

The system for vetting foster families is much stronger than it was 20 years ago, Hinkle wrote.

"We conduct state and federal background checks, child maltreatment checks, home studies and training," she wrote. "We also do re-evaluations of homes annually, and new background and maltreatment checks are run every two years. ... We also are more diligent about closing foster homes when abuse allegations are perhaps unsubstantiated but there are concerns about the environment."

Clarence Garretson, a long-haul truck driver, pleaded guilty in October to five counts of interstate transportation of a minor with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity. He was charged with 11 counts involving eight minors, but the government dismissed the other six counts as part of a plea agreement.

Not only did Garretson abuse children at his home, but also while driving his 18-wheeler, according to the lawsuit.

"Charlie frequently took his victims with him on his trucking routes, so that he could satisfy his carnal urges even when he was away from home," according to the suit.

Victims told investigators Garretson would stop his truck for the night at locations that had casinos. He would sexually abuse them, then go into the casinos to gamble.

On May 31, U.S. District Judge P.K. Holmes III sentenced Garretson to life in prison.

Holmes also criticized the Human Services Department.

"The FBI investigation showed a failure of the system, and it's had a devastating effect on the people involved," he said.

During the past 18 years, 35 children were placed in the Garretson home for protection against abuse, but 14 of them became victims of sexual abuse from Clarence Garretson, Holmes said during the hearing. (The number of victims in the judge's comment differed from 18 as stated in Carter's lawsuit.)

Holmes recused from the civil case Tuesday, and it was reassigned to U.S. District Judge Timothy Brooks.

Garretson's abuse of the children came to light in March 2016 when the Van Buren Police Department received a report that Garretson had molested a 10-year-old foster child in the summer of 2014 when he took her on the road with him.

According to a search warrant affidavit, the girl told police that Garretson raped her and said "he done it the whole time we were on the road."

According to the affidavit, when a Van Buren detective confronted Garretson with the girl's allegations, Garretson said she was lying and "it never happened."

Hinkle said potential foster parents shouldn't be swayed by stories of abusive foster parents.

"There is a great need for loving, suitable foster homes for children who have been abused or neglected," she said. "They come into the child welfare system through no fault of their own."

Metro on 06/07/2017