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Of Abuse, Betrayal, Vindication

They sued the agency sworn to protect them--and won. But that isn't the victory for two sisters: being heard is.

May 22, 1997|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BURLINGTON, Vt. — For years the two sisters told no one of the abuse, the heinous violations that their parents insisted were normal expressions of love. Throughout their childhood, sex with their stepfather was part of daily life, as routine as brushing their teeth.

When at last one sister confided in a trusted adult, state authorities were notified. One child protection official assured the child, then 13, that "either he or I would be out of the home in a very short time," Toni Patterson Plummer recalled. "She stressed that something would happen quickly." All that happened was that her stepfather's assaults increased in frequency.

So this is a story of betrayal, abandonment and broken trust. But in the case of Patterson Plummer, now 27, and her 24-year-old sister, Terri Sabia, it is also a story of vindication. Earlier this month, the pair won a $1-million settlement from Vermont's child protection agency, a clear acknowledgment of the damage they suffered because the agency failed to intervene on their behalf. But Patterson Plummer, as outspoken as her sister is shy, said the most important part of the decision is not the money, but a provision that makes them unpaid advisors to the Department of Social and Rehabilitative Services, the very agency that let the girls down.

"You can't put a dollar figure on this," Patterson Plummer said. "This was about being heard."

Tom Nelson, an attorney for the National Center for Victims' Rights in Arlington, Va., said victims' assistance groups around the country are hailing the Vermont case as an important advance in the growing push for "sovereign accountability"--holding a state responsible for individual damages. He also lauded the settlement as an unusual example of how victims are seeking highly personalized forms of justice. "To have it written into the settlement, for adult survivors of child abuse to be invited in--asked to participate in policy--that is unique," Nelson said.

Kurt Hughes, the Burlington lawyer who represented the sisters in the five-year civil suit, called the seven-figure settlement "a wake-up call" for child welfare agencies. But he echoed his client in contending that the real victory wasn't monetary. "Toni isn't kidding when she says the money is secondary," Hughes said. "It really was about having the powerless be heard."

The sisters' first efforts to report the abuse began 14 years ago, long before he became Vermont's commissioner of Social and Rehabilitative Services, said William Young, who moved for a swift settlement after hearing court testimony from Patterson Plummer and Martha Scales, the youth group leader to whom Patterson Plummer first confided in 1983. He noted that Dennis LaPlant, the stepfather, was found guilty of felony child abuse in 1992 and is serving a seven-to-10-year sentence. He said his agency's insurer would be responsible for the bulk of what he called a "very significant" settlement.

Young, too, emphasized the value of including the victims in the process of redress. "It would be foolish not to meet with them," said Young, who will hold his first meeting with Patterson Plummer this week. "If they hadn't requested it, I probably would have suggested it. I didn't think of it as groundbreaking or anything else. I just thought of it as common sense."

*

Patterson Plummer and Sabia paint a heart-gripping portrait of family debauchery. Both say the abuse began soon after their mother, Linda, married LaPlant, a paper mill worker. The girls were 7 and 5 years old.

"It began as touching and groping, and progressed. When I was 10 is when the actual penetration began," Patterson Plummer said. She is a small woman with expressive brown eyes and dark, shiny hair. She has told this story many times, beginning when she first blurted out her tale to Scales. The impact hasn't diminished.

"Both Denny and my mother told me I was being prepared for marriage," she said, pausing during breakfast at a coffee shop here. "They said he was teaching me 'closeness.' "

Until Sabia was 14 and became pregnant by LaPlant, neither sister knew that the other was being abused. "His exact words were that it was our little secret, and I couldn't tell nobody," Sabia said. Her parents forced her to abort the pregnancy.

They also required Patterson Plummer to lead a Cinderella-like existence, baby-sitting her sister and a younger brother while her parents worked. She dressed the children for school, cooked and cleaned--though not always to her stepfather's exacting specifications.

"He'd go on these inspections," she said. "If one fork was dirty, I'd have to rewash all the dishes."

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