Our firm has developed a specialty in dependency abuse cases involving the physical or sexual abuse of children who are in the dependency system. Oftentimes, the defendants are County agencies, and the social workers whom they employ, who have failed to do their jobs. Sometimes there are also private agencies who have placed children into homes with known predators and therefore face liability.
The common denominator in these cases is that already vulnerable children, whose parents lack the ability to adequately care for them, have been further harmed by a system that is supposed to be there for the sole purpose of protecting them. These cases present very difficult legal challenges because social workers are given wide latitude in deciding where to place children, and when to remove them from their parents, and the law provides governmental immunity for most (but not all) of those types of decisions and actions.
In 2015, Richard Koskoff, Amy Niven and Carly Sanchez of our firm obtained a $2.5 million settlement in a case against the County of Riverside. Our client, Mikala, was a young girl who was the victim of shaken baby syndrome while in the home of her aunt. Mikala’s mother had been arrested shortly before the events in question, and the County had given the aunt temporary custody of Mikala, who was then just two years old. Over the ensuing couple of months, County social workers visited the aunt’s home on a number of occasions and saw that Mikala was exhibiting various strange behaviors, indicative of psychological turmoil. Eventually, the aunt called a County hotline on a weekend, stating that she could not handle caring for Mikala anymore and demanding that Mikala be removed from the home immediately. Under the County’s own rules, they then had seven days to remove Mikala.
Instead of complying with that rule, however, a County social worker attempted to persuade the aunt to keep Mikala until other arrangements could be made for her. As the social worker kept stalling, Mikala was rushed to the hospital with a traumatic brain injury, associated with shaken baby syndrome, 10 days after the aunt had demanded her removal from the home. The aunt ultimately plead guilty to felony child abuse. Had the County complied with their own rule and recognized the danger of allowing Mikala to remain with a caretaker who did not want to care for her, this tragedy would have been avoided.
What really broke Mikala’s case open was the discovery that the County social worker had gone back and altered her logs to make it appear that the aunt had formally rescinded her demand that Mikala be removed from her home. With the assistance of a computer forensics expert, our firm was able to show that this alteration occurred on the same day that the social worker had visited the hospital and learned of the severity of Mikala’s injury.
The team of Koskoff, Niven and Sanchez also obtained a $4 million settlement in 2016 on behalf of two young boys, Anthony (age 9) and Raheem (age 8), who were repeatedly sexually assaulted, over a four-month period, by a 14-year-old boy who lived with them in the same foster home. The perpetrator had committed previous acts of sexual abuse against younger children and therefore was not supposed to be in a home with any other children at all. Nevertheless, a private foster care agency placed all three boys together and failed to warn the foster mother of the perpetrator’s past misconduct.
The defendants (which consisted of the private agency and two Counties) contended that they had no knowledge of the perpetrator’s history of sexual abuse, despite the fact that their files were rife with information about this misconduct. They also claimed that he had been successfully rehabilitated, as evidenced by the fact that over five years had passed without any reported instances of abuse, and that what occurred with the plaintiffs was not abuse at all, but rather consensual sex play. The case was litigated for almost five years before finally settling just two days before trial.
We are currently litigating and investigating a number of other cases involving children who were abused while in the dependency system. In one particularly heartbreaking case, an 11- year-old girl was repeatedly raped by her mother’s boyfriend. The girl confided in a teacher about what was happening, and the teacher promptly reported the abuse to the police. County social workers proceeded to investigate the sexual abuse allegations, as well as other problems in the home, for almost a year without taking any meaningful action. They then left the girl to her own devices, and the abuse continued unabated for another year-and-a-half, until it was discovered that the perpetrator had impregnated the girl. Now 14, the victim has given birth, and her baby has been given up for adoption. The damage to her psyche and emotional well-being is immense.
The L.A. Times has run a series of articles about problems in the dependency system, and in particular about an eight-year-old Palmdale resident who died after suffering unfathomable abuse by his mother and her boyfriend. Four of the social workers involved in that case are now being prosecuted criminally for their failure to take action despite receiving multiple reports about the abuse over the course of about nine months.
There is no doubt that many social workers in the dependency system perform their jobs with professionalism and commitment. However, there does appear to be a systemic problem in some Counties, where the priority seems to be to create the appearance of activity without actually taking any real action. Removing a child from his or her parents is obviously a serious matter that should not be taken lightly, but that is not an excuse for creating an atmosphere of inertia that leaves already vulnerable children without any meaningful protection.