A former foster parent was sentenced on Wednesday in Fort Smith to life in federal prison for sexually assaulting minors.
U.S. District Judge P.K. Holmes called the defendant Clarence “Charlie” Garretson’s repeated sexual abuse and rape of children in his home “the most horrific criminal conduct I’ve seen in regards to child exploitation.”
Holmes also noted the “extreme failure on the part of the [Arkansas] Department of Human Services in this case.” DHS, the state agency responsible for child welfare and foster care in Arkansas, licensed Garretson and his wife, Lisa, as foster parents from 1998 to approximately 2004. The state placed some 35 children in the household over that time period. Holmes said the presentencing report — which is sealed by court order — provides evidence that 14* of those children were abused by Garretson.
“When you look back on it, you wonder how it could ever have happened — but it did,” the judge said Wednesday to a Fort Smith courtroom filled with victims, their families and the family of the defendant, including Lisa Garretson.
A long-haul truck driver, Clarence Garretson would take children on cross-country trips, sexually assault them in the cab of his truck and coerce them into silence afterward, according to federal prosecutors. His victims appear to have been mostly young girls, but included at least one boy as well. Despite the fact that at least one victim reported Garretson’s actions to state authorities during the early 2000s, he was not charged with a crime until he raped yet another child in 2014. That victim reported the abuse to her mother, who contacted the police, in 2016, leading to an FBI investigation that uncovered a pattern of earlier assaults that occurred when the Garretsons operated their DHS-licensed foster home a decade earlier.
Garretson, 66*, pleaded guilty in October to five counts of interstate transportation of a minor with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity. In exchange, federal prosecutors dropped six additional counts and agreed to not prosecute Lisa Garretson.
Confidentiality laws prohibit DHS from commenting on individual foster care cases or child maltreatment investigations, which means the agency cannot publicly refute specific allegations of misconduct. When asked about the Garretson case in October, DHS spokeswoman Amy Webb said, “this is a tragic situation, and DHS would never intentionally put a child in harm’s way. 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 youth in foster care are in safe homes.
“The system for vetting foster families is much stronger and more thorough today than it was 20 years ago. … We conduct state and federal background checks, child maltreatment checks, home studies, and training. We also do re-evaluations of homes annually and new background and maltreatment checks every two years. In addition, we have a more sophisticated computer system. We also now have a system in place that automatically notifies [the DHS division responsible for foster care] when there is a call into the child abuse hotline that includes an allegation against a foster parent.”
Nicole Nava was one victim who addressed the court Wednesday. She entered DHS custody at age 4, in 1996, and remained in foster care until she turned 18. Her biological parents had abused her before their parental rights were terminated by the state, she said, as well as her uncle. That abuse “continued in the foster care system,” she said.
Nava was 11 when she entered the Garretson household. After her foster father began to sexually abuse her, she said, she repeatedly attempted to alert DHS, to no avail. “I mean, who could believe this could happen in a state-run foster home? … I was made out to be a liar, not only by Charlie, but by Lisa, state officials, investigators, DHS, everybody.”
“Arkansas DHS put me and many others in the hands of a monster,” Nava said. “Nothing can take away what he has done, so the next best thing is for him to rot in a federal prison.” She enumerated the lasting psychological effects of childhood abuse: anxiety, nightmares, a chronic inability to trust others. Nonetheless, she said, “I have overcome the majority of my past.” Nava said she is married with three children and has a career in the nursing field. “I have a good life — something to be proud of,” she said. “And it’s not fair that I wasn’t believed.”
“You will get yours, Charlie,” she told Garretson. “I hope you get tortured while we continue our lives.”
Another victim, Rachel Clark, broke down in tears as soon as she began to speak, prompting Assistant U.S. Attorney Kyra Jenner to read Clark’s statement in her stead. She entered the Garretson household as a foster child along with her younger brother and sister, and the Garretsons eventually adopted her younger brother. Clark’s statement said she hid the fact she was abused in part because she feared telling someone would result in her being separated from her siblings. “I did not want to lose the only family I had,” she said. Later, Clark found out Garretson had been sexually exploiting her siblings as well.
In all, seven victims or family members of victims gave statements, most of which urged Judge Holmes to hand down a life sentence. Holmes said that the court had received five letters of support for Garretson, but no one spoke in favor of a lighter sentence at Wednesday’s hearing other than Garretson’s attorney and the defendant himself.
Jenner, the U.S. assistant attorney, told Holmes that “there is no sentence short of life that would be reasonable and just.” She declined to go into further detail, but the prosecution’s sentencing memorandum laid out the argument for maximal punishment:
“The nature and circumstances of the offense are exacerbated by the prior histories of the minor victims who were placed in the Defendant’s home by DHS,” it states. “Most of the foster care children who became the Defendant’s victims had been physically and/or sexually abused, experienced abject poverty, had parents addicted to drugs or alcohol or been living in dangerously dysfunctional situations. The Defendant’s victims from the foster care system came into the Defendant’s home hoping for and expecting a more stable environment and better lives. They needed the Defendant’s physical, emotional and academic support. To some victims, the Defendant and his wife were the only ‘family’ they had. The Defendant betrayed them. He preyed upon his victims’ fears of abandonment, trust issues, isolation from any outside family support systems, low self esteem and insecurity.”
The memorandum also states that the circumstances of the case are analogous to those in United States v. Bernie Lazar Hoffman. The defendant in that case — better known as evangelist Tony Alamo — was given a life sentence for five counts of interstate transportation of a minor with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity. Garretson pleaded guilty to five counts of the same crime. “Similarly, 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,” the memorandum says.
Garretson’s attorney, J. Marvin Honeycutt, disputed none of the facts outlined by prosecutors or victims. He requested merely that Holmes spare his client a life sentence, arguing that Alamo’s example should not be used as a benchmark because that case went to trial. Because of the plea agreement, Garretson’s victims were at least spared the pain of delivering testimony on the stand and undergoing cross-examination, Honeycutt argued.
Garretson himself kept his remarks brief. He said he didn’t remember all of the victims who spoke, but added, “for anybody I’ve hurt, I apologize with all of my heart.” He asked the judge for a sentence that would give him a faint hope of release one day, should he live long enough, and referenced his 37-year marriage. “I couldn’t ask for a better wife … let me die at home with her,” he said.
Holmes was not inclined toward leniency. “The [presentencing report] is much more extensive than what we heard today,” he said. “What occurred here was Mr. Garretson, under the guise of being a foster parent … brutally tortured and sexually assaulted [children] … at a time when they were looking for a place of safety.” Holmes noted that Garretson’s status as a foster parent was secured “with the help of the Department of Human Services.”
“I recognize that DHS has a difficult job,” Holmes added later. However, he said, the Garretson case “shows … a failure of the system, and it had devastating effects on victims.” He especially noted the “unfortunate” effects on Nava, who unsuccessfully attempted to report the abuse over a decade ago. Holmes had harsh words for Lisa Garretson as well: “If she didn’t know what was going on, she should have known.”
Holmes sentenced Garretson to life in prison only for the first count. For the remaining four counts, the judge delivered a sentence of 15 years per count, to be served concurrently.
*A previous version of this story mistakenly listed the number of former foster children Garretson abused, according to evidence. It also mistakenly said Garretson was 65.
This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans.