FORT SMITH -- A federal judge sentenced a Van Buren man to life in prison Wednesday for sexually abusing children living in his foster or adoptive home over the past 18 years.
In sentencing Clarence Garretson, 66, to prison on five counts of interstate transportation of a minor with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity, U.S. District Judge P.K. Holmes III criticized the Arkansas Department of Human Services for allowing children to be placed in the home of Garretson and his wife, Lisa, where so many children were abused for so long.
"The FBI investigation showed a failure of the system, and it's had a devastating effect on the people involved," Holmes said.
Holmes commented during the two-hour hearing that in the past 18 years, 35 children were placed in the Garretson home for protection against abuse and neglect, but 14 became victims of sexual abuse from Clarence Garretson.
Lisa Garretson was not charged in the case, but Holmes said the abuse by her husband had gone on for so long that she should have been aware of what he was doing and should have done something to stop him.
"The Arkansas Department of Human Services put me and many others in the hands of a monster," said one of five victims who told Holmes about the abuse they endured.
Victims who spoke, some through tears, others dry-eyed, said they felt betrayed by the Department of Human Services and the Garretsons for being taken out of one abusive home and placed with the Garretsons, thinking they would get help but finding more abuse.
They often didn't report the abuse because Garretson told them no one would believe them and, in some cases, threatened to take them from their siblings, who also were abused.
One woman said she reported abuse to the Department of Human Services three times but nothing was done.
When contacted Wednesday, the Department of Human Services said it was prohibited from commenting on specific cases.
"This is a tragic situation and DHS would never intentionally put a child in harm's way," the department said in a prepared statement. "Sadly, there are people who prey upon children and may try to use the foster system to do so. When that happens today, we act swiftly to ensure the youth in foster care are in safe homes."
The statement went on to say that the vetting process for foster families is "much stronger" and "more thorough" than it was 20 years ago, pointing out the department conducts state and federal background checks, child maltreatment checks and re-evaluations of homes annually, among other measures.
The department also noted that it has a system that can automatically notify the Division of Child and Family Services when there is a call into the child abuse hotline.
"The safety of our foster children is our number one priority and we do everything we can on the front end to make sure the people wanting to serve as foster parents will provide safe, loving and stable homes," the statement read.
Some of the victims who married and had children said they had difficulties in their marriage. Others said they felt it difficult to trust people, especially authority figures, were overly protective of their children, experienced depression and anxiety, had trouble interacting with others and had nightmares.
"You can never forget the hurt," one woman said.
Several of the victims asked Holmes to sentence Garretson to life in prison.
"I can now be at peace knowing that you're where you should be," one woman said addressing Garretson.
Garretson, who appeared to listen attentively to the victims' statements, said he couldn't remember some of the victims who spoke. He said he was proud of one of the women who said she went into law enforcement. She said she took up law enforcement to stop people like Garretson.
Garretson apologized to the people he hurt and said he wanted his granddaughter to know that he loved her. The statement prompted a woman in the audience to begin sobbing. She had to be helped from the courtroom and still could be heard crying in the hallway minutes later.
Garretson was charged with 11 counts of transporting minors across state lines for sexual purposes but pleaded guilty to the five counts in October as part of a plea agreement with the government.
Court records showed Garretson, a long-haul truck driver, took each of the girls with him as passengers on interstate trips during which he had sexual intercourse with them or performed sexual acts on them. The youngest victim was 9.
In all the cases, the girls told investigators, Garretson would stop for the night at locations that had casinos. He would have sex with the girls and then go into the casinos to gamble.
In the cases for which Garretson entered guilty pleas, the offenses occurred in 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2014. He received the life sentence for the 2014 charge since a change in the law in 2006 allowed for the life sentence. On the other counts, which occurred before the law was changed, Holmes sentenced Garretson to the maximum 15 years in prison, with the sentences to run concurrently.
In a sentencing memorandum filed by the government, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kyra Jenner compared Garretson to the late Tony Alamo, the discredited Christian ministry founder who died in federal prison May 2 at age 82. Alamo was serving a 175-year sentence for convictions on five counts of transporting minors across state lines for sexual purposes.
Arguing to justify a life sentence for Garreston, Jenner wrote, "both defendants used their respective positions of power and authority to gain access to their victims. Each incorporated fear tactics and threatened retribution to silence their victims. Both perpetrated sexual assaults on minors for years."
Garretson's attorney, Marvin Honeycutt of Fort Smith, argued against the comparison, saying his client admitted to his crimes, while Alamo maintained his innocence and went to trial. The victims who spoke at Wednesday's hearing also were not required to speak and were not subject to cross examination, Honeycutt noted.
State Desk on 06/01/2017