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Oregon Pays Record $5.85 Million for Abuse of Foster Child and Abuser's Death in Prison

The State of Oregon has paid $3.75 million to a little girl who was injured by an abusive foster parent. Then, in an ironic twist, state officials agreed to pay another $2.1 million to the family of the man who committed the abuse, to settle a wrongful death lawsuit for negligent prison medical care. Both settlements, totaling $5.85 million, represent the largest payouts in the state's history for the type of cases involved.

In 2007, Oregon foster care officials placed two-year-old Stephanie Kuntupis with Cesar Cruz-Reyes, Sr. and his wife, Michele. Stephanie suffered unexplained bruises for weeks before she was found unconscious and taken to a hospital in June 2007.

An investigation found that Cesar had violently shaken Stephanie, partially blinding her and causing irreversible brain damage. Experts believe that Stephanie, now eight years old, could remain childlike her entire life and will likely never be able to live independently. Worse, she may suffer early onset dementia because her brain was so badly injured by the abuse, and she could die prematurely.

Stephanie's guardian filed suit in Multnomah County Circuit Court; the case was removed to federal court but later returned to the circuit court. The state settled the case for $3.75 million, according to a May 2012 news report, because it failed to adequately investigate the foster parents before placing Stephanie in their care. See: S.K. v. State of Oregon, Circuit Court for Multnomah County (OR), Case No. 0711-12845.

The settlement will help provide treatment for Stephanie throughout her life, said Erin Olson, one of her attorneys.

"This is a 5-year-old case that's back in the newspaper and it's going to sound like it's today's child welfare system, and it's not today's child welfare system," stated Erinn Kelley-Siel, Director of Oregon's Department of Human Services. "The screening for foster parents is remarkably different than the [system] we had five years ago."

Michele Cruz-Reyes had falsely claimed on the couple's foster parent application that she and her husband had never been arrested or charged with a crime, according to the lawsuit filed by Stephanie's guardian. Although neither had been convicted, state records revealed more than six arrests between them.

Cesar was arrested in 1992 for cocaine possession and distribution, hit and run, and lying to the police – twice. He also had a history of using false names and had used his son's Social Security number on two bankruptcies, his foster parent application and to obtain a construction job. Additionally, he was accused of being an illegal immigrant.

Michele was charged with theft in 1992 and conspiracy to commit identity theft in 2006. She had also fraudulently received $2,300 in welfare benefits by lying about her household income.

This information likely would have disqualified the couple as foster parents. Yet state foster care officials either were unaware of, or disregarded, that information. Stephanie had been placed in the foster care system after her parents, Stephen Kuntupis and Monique Peals, were arrested for possession of methamphetamine.

Cesar Cruz-Reyes pleaded no contest to attempted first-degree assault and was sentenced to just two-and-a-half years in prison for injuring Stephanie. It is unclear whether Michele knew her husband was physically abusing Stephanie, but prosecutors did not charge her with a crime.

Soon after Cesar began serving his prison sentence in 2009, medical staff prescribed Isoniazid, a preventive tuberculosis drug treatment. However, they failed to properly monitor him, ignored his requests for help when he became so sick that he had difficulty walking and delayed sending him to a hospital, where he died in August 2009 of liver failure due to the drug's side effects, according to a lawsuit filed by his wife.

"We take the safety and health of the inmates in our custody very seriously," said Colette S. Peters, Director of the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC). "This is a tragic situation."

The ODOC's legal counsel declined to comment on why the state settled the case for $2.1 million – the highest amount ever paid for a prisoner's death in Oregon. But attorney Benjamin Haile with the Portland Law Collective LLP, who represented Michele Cruz-Reyes in her lawsuit, shed some light on that question. "This is an extremely compelling case of medical neglect, of denying a person basic essential medical care and missing opportunities over and over to save his life," he explained.

The settlement compensates Cesar's wife and teenage children for his death, said Haile. Despite being a convicted felon, Cesar had significant future earnings potential because his employer was willing to re-hire him after his release from prison.

Even so, Steven Goldberg, another attorney representing Cesar's estate, admitted in court filings that the case would have been worth "very little" if the jury were allowed to know why Cesar was incarcerated. Yet, "we believed that we would have been able to keep out the facts underlying the decedent's conviction," Goldberg stated, which likely contributed to the record settlement amount.

Source: The Oregonian

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Related legal case

S.K. v. State of Oregon