Former foster youths sue private agency, woman who took them in

Eight former foster youths allege in suit that foster mother abused them

For months, child abuse allegations have roiled a Victorville foster parent and the private San Bernardino County foster care agency that supervised her. 

In February, state regulators declared the parent responsible for more than a year of severe physical abuse — determining that she slapped, choked and struck some of her foster children with a baseball bat and forced others to crouch while holding heavy objects.

As a result, 45-year-old Lisa Oates was banned from ever again participating in the foster care system.

Now, eight former foster youths sent to live in Oates' home have filed a lawsuit against her and Interim Care, the Rancho Cucamonga agency that recruited and supervised her under contract with San Bernardino County.

The youths also contend that they disclosed the abuse to at least 15 so-called mandated reporters — police officers, school counselors, social workers and other professionals who are legally obliged to initiate an investigation if they suspect mistreatment. Although some of their complaints resulted in investigations, the youths allege that they were always interviewed by authorities with Oates present and recanted out of fear she would retaliate.

That allegation in particular has generated concern in the foster-care community.

"There is a stereotype that youth are dishonest and just making complaints to manipulate the system, but I think youth have to be incredibly brave to actually report," said Jennifer Rodriguez, a former foster youth who is now executive director of the Youth Law Center in San Francisco.

Interim Care's chief executive, Sukhwinder Singh, is named as a defendant as well. Neither Oates nor Singh responded to calls seeking comment.

The Times reported in June that Singh claimed to work a total of 120 hours a week at three nonprofit foster care agencies in 2009, receiving $311,000 in pay, according to the agencies' tax returns.

She also charged almost $1.8 million in rent from 2007 to 2011 for properties she owned and leased back to her foster care agencies, according to financial statements filed with the state. State audits have determined that she sometimes charged well above market rates.

Foster care officials in Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties continued to place thousands of children through the agencies because the homes appeared to meet safety standards. Now, officials say they are reassessing that because of the problems uncovered in the Oates home and others.

The head of San Bernardino County's Children and Family Services agency denied mishandling the supervision of Oates' home, which at any one time housed up to six foster teens.

"We have no information regarding any substantiated allegations of abuse or neglect for children currently placed with Interim," said director Randall Schulz. "If abuse or neglect is revealed, appropriate action will be taken."

According to California Department of Social Services records, Oates beat children in her care between December 2011 and August 2013, sometimes causing them to bleed.

Oates also tried to pull one girl's fake fingernails off, "slammed" her to the ground and prevented her from fleeing up the stairs by dragging her back down, state investigators said.

Finally, some of the youths ran away to a battered children's center last year and a state investigation was initiated that substantiated the allegations of physical abuse.

The lawsuit contends that Oates would regularly wake the youths in the middle of the night if she decided that the house hadn't been cleaned well enough — and they wouldn't be allowed to return to bed for another two hours until the work was done.

State regulators substantiated an incident in which Oates took one of her foster children into the Victorville desert where she choked her.

Reandre Jones, now 18, said in an interview that Oates had been unhappy with the way she had been cleaning. "I thought [Oates] was going to kill me," she said.

Another plaintiff, Isaiah Sais, now 20, said in an interview: "Someone was always getting beat There was no real reason. For her, it was like a game.... For any kid who went there, it was the worst time of their life."

In their lawsuit, the former foster youths also allege that Oates was evicted from four of seven homes she had rented during her time as a foster parent and that they were homeless for six months while still receiving monthly payments that the state provides for the care of foster children. At the time, a social worker from the Interim Care agency was supposed to visit weekly, followed by a monthly visit from county social workers.

Even when they had a home of their own, several plaintiffs said in interviews, there was often not enough furniture and the children would move beds and other belongings back and forth between Oates' home and the home of her boyfriend who was also a foster parent.

"I would have to go and get a bed when they knew the social worker was coming," Sais told The Times. "When the social worker left, I put it back."

The children were not allowed to eat with Oates, much of the food in the pantry was off limits, and they lived "in a constant state of hunger," the former foster youths alleged in the lawsuit.

They now experience depression, anxiety and other after-effects from the abuse, the lawsuit said.

"To the system, we were just fine that whole time," said Selena Galvan, now 21. "But we were anything but fine."

Follow @gtherolf for more news about child welfare.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times