Iowa to pay $10 million to siblings of adopted teen girl who died of starvation in 2017

Iowa will pay $10 million to the siblings of an adopted 16-year-old girl who weighed just 56 pounds (25 kilograms) when she died of starvation in a home where an attorney for the siblings says the children were forced to fight each other for food.

A state board approved the settlement for the siblings Monday, years after the severely malnourished body of Sabrina Ray was found in 2017 at her home in Perry, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) northwest of Des Moines. She lived with three other adoptive siblings as well as foster siblings.

Sabrina Ray's adoptive mother, Misty Ray, was sentenced to life in prison on kidnapping charges, and Marc Ray, her adoptive father, was sentenced to 80 years for kidnapping and child endangerment. An adoptive grandmother and brother also received prison sentences.

Two of Sabrina Ray's siblings, former foster care children who were also adopted by the Rays, claimed Iowa Department of Health and Human Services authorities failed to protect them from severe physical abuse, torture and neglect. The siblings — identified only by initials in records — had pushed for $50 million each but settled for $5 million apiece after mediation.

Scott Wadding, the lawyer for the surviving siblings, described what they experienced as “the worst torture and abuse that a person can imagine.”

Some child abuse reports accused the Rays of forcing their foster children to drink soapy water, stand over cold vents and eat their own vomit. Wadding said the children were forced to fight each other for food, ate only oatmeal for years and had no furniture in their locked rooms. He said one sibling repeatedly jumped from her second-story bedroom window to drink from a neighbor’s garden hose because she was so thirsty.

Wadding said that when Sabrina Ray was first brought into the home, the other siblings thought she was “weird” because she wanted to hug them. He said she later died in her sisters' arms and had hoped her death would alert the police and free them.

“After all these years of abuse and torture, Sabrina is hugging her sisters like she did the first day that she got there,” Wadding said. “I keep thinking about that and how despite how bad this home was, they couldn't beat and torture that out of her. That was her to the very end."

An Associated Press request for comment to the Health and Human Services Department was not immediately returned Monday.

In an Oct. 31 letter to the State Appeal Board, Iowa Deputy Attorney General Stan Thompson called the abuse “indefensible” and said the state foster care system's “failures to protect the children were significant.”

“The prolonged exposure to such an environment caused significant physical and emotional damage to these children," Thompson said.

The State Appeal Board is responsible for approving claims against state entities and state workers.

A state watchdog found in 2020 that Sabrina Ray's life could have been saved if state social workers and contractors had been more thorough when they investigated the girl’s living conditions.

The report by the Iowa state ombudsman found that the state Department of Health and Human Services received 11 child abuse reports against the adoptive parents between 2010 and 2015. Some of the allegations included comments that Sabrina Ray looked extremely thin and unhealthy.

Authorities found locks, alarms and coverings on the doors and windows in the bedroom where Sabrina Ray died, according to the report. Police said she slept on a thin mattress on the floor and apparently used a toilet in the room intended for toddlers.

According to the report, a department inspector failed to check Sabrina Ray's room just months before her death because she misunderstood a policy requiring a complete examination of the house. Other Department of Human Services workers noted in their assessments that Ray appeared thin but said they didn’t have the training necessary to recognize malnutrition.

Part of the settlement approved Monday requires the department to create a task force to ensure that recommendations from the ombudsman's report are implemented and to make additional suggestions to help improve Iowa's foster care system.

The task force will include guardians of both siblings and the police officer who found Sabrina Ray's body after a 911 call.

“Given what has transpired over the last six years, we felt that it was an important and essential part of any settlement to include this task force,” Wadding said.