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Federal civil rights suit says elderly woman died after improper DHS investigation and caretaker arrests

Columbia County finds itself at the center of another civil rights lawsuit, one alleging sheriff's deputies and a state Department of Human Services employee transported an ailing elderly woman without consent and wrongfully arrested her caregivers, leading to the woman's death.

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: NICOLE THILL - A civil rights lawsuit filed against Columbia County and a former DHS employee alleges two women were wrongfully arrested in a hasty investigation into allegations of elder abuse filed with the state agency. The lawsuit claims the actions of sheriffs deputies and DHS caused the death of an elderly Rainier woman. The $500,000 lawsuit was filed roughly a month after the county settled a different civil rights lawsuit with a former jail inmate.

According to the complaint filed in U.S. District Court, Sandra Anderson and Nettie Anderson were caring for Betty Newell, Sandra Anderson's mother, when they were both arrested in a home in Rainier in 2017 for suspected elder abuse. The alleged abuse was never properly investigated, the complaint states. Additionally, Newell was traumatized, taken from her home without her consent, and died a few days after being transferred to the hospital, the complaint states.

False arrests?

Sandra Anderson was a trained medical assistant with nearly 20 years' experience and was helping care for her mother at the time, according to the lawsuit. Newell also had regular visits from a hospice worker and her designated caretaker, Nettie Anderson, was a licensed caregiver. Before her death, Newell was bedridden and had persistent bed sores. Her caretakers had her evaluated by a wound care nurse and were following a treatment plan, the lawsuit claims.

"Following the assessment I expressed my concern to Sandra, stating that Mrs. Newell would not be able to heal these wounds due to her lack of health and that the wounds should be assessed by Mrs. Newell's primary care provider," a report prepared by Bryan Lomax, a certified wound care specialist, states.

In February 2017, Newell was visited by a substitute hospice worker who noticed her bed sores and filed a complaint with DHS, suggesting Newell might be the victim of elder abuse and neglect.

Shortly afterward, DHS sent Bryan Cutright Sr., a DHS worker, to investigate. Cutright had previously worked with the Columbia County Sheriff's Office before taking a job with DHS.

Mrs. Anderson claimed Cutright's visit grew contentious after he began photographing Newell and declined Anderson's requests to see the photos. Tensions reportedly grew when Frank Anderson, Sandra's husband, approached Cutright, commenting on a U.S. Marine Corps insignia on Cutright's bag.

"Mr. Anderson said 'I see you're a Marine.' Mr. Cutright replied 'Yeah, I'm tough.' Mr. Anderson answered 'No, it means you're a jarhead.'"

Mr. Cutright became visibly upset, walked to where his face was inches from Mr. Anderson's, and stared at him intently in an intimidating manner. Mr. Anderson repeated to Mr. Cutright several times that he needed to leave," the complaint states.

Cutright returned the next day, on Feb. 23, 2017, with sheriff's deputies, an ambulance and a DHS supervisor, according to the lawsuit. Sandra, Nettie and Frank Anderson were all placed in handcuffs. Mr. Anderson was eventually released, but Sandra and Nettie Anderson were taken to Columbia County Jail.

Newell was taken by ambulance to St. Johns Medical Center.

After the arrests, the Columbia County Sheriff's Office issued a notice of the Andersons' arrest to local media, indicating the Andersons faced criminal charges after a DHS report indicated "the victim did not appear to be receiving the necessary and legally required care from her caretakers," CCSO stated at the time.

Cutright was not immediately available for comment.

Suit alleges acts contributed to woman's death

"[The] County has condoned an ongoing pattern of severe action before a fair and thorough investigation could possibly justify such conduct," the complaint states. The attorney representing the Anderson family is Jacob Johnstun of St. Helens. JohnstunJohnstun is the same attorney who represented Christopher Bartlett, the man the county settled with a few months prior for $251,000 in the wake of the Sheriff's Office's use in 2017 of a canine for a cell extraction in the jail.

The plaintiff believes it was a hasty investigation and wrongful arrest that ultimately led to her mother's death.

"Plaintiff Newell, in her weak and fragile state, witnessed the cuffing, interrogation, and arrest of her daughter and Ms. Anderson," the complaint states. "This traumatic experience deeply upset her, and from this time forward, she did not speak or eat again. Consequently, her condition began to rapidly deteriorate."

A no-contact order was imposed against Sandra Anderson, prohibiting her from visiting her mother in the hospital. The court order was lifted on Feb. 27.

Newell died Feb. 28 after being transferred to a hospice facility. Nettie and Sandra Anderson were never indicted.

"As a result of these Constitutional violations, Plaintiff Newell was deprived of her freedom to be left alone, and to enjoy the rest of her life unharassed, surrounded by family, and to eventually die in peace," the lawsuit states.

"To this date, nearly two years later, neither Plaintiff Anderson nor Ms. Anderson have been prosecuted for the false allegations arising from the events described above," the lawsuit indicates.

On Friday, Dec. 7, DHS representatives confirmed Cutright is still employed with the agency, but declined to go into detail about the protocol for investigations, citing an active lawsuit.

"The Aging and People with Disabilities (APD) program and Adult Protective Services are committed to ensuring the safety of older adults and people with disabilities," Elisa Williams, a DHS communications officer, stated via email. "Adult Protective Services routinely refers abuse complaint cases to local law enforcement."

The plaintiff, on behalf of her late mother, is seeking $500,000 from Columbia County, alleging the Andersons were subjected to arrest without probable cause, and Newell was the victim of arrest and unlawful seizure without probable cause, as well as wrongful death.

This story has been updated with additional information from DHS since it first appeared in print and on the web.

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