Jurors awarded $45.4 million Thursday to a girl who suffered two years of sexual abuse in an El Monte home where county social workers left her despite evidence showing that an accused molester lived in the house.
The Department of Children and Family Services, jurors found, ignored warning signs of potential abuse and failed to tell police what they knew, leaving the then-7-year-old to be molested by at least four men whom her mother invited into the home.
Jurors deliberated four and half hours before deciding to make the massive award. They attributed 45% of the blame for the girl’s ordeal to DCFS, a finding that requires the county to pay more than $20 million of the verdict.
“She endured two years of sex abuse you cannot imagine,” said David Ring, an attorney for the girl’s father, who sued the agency and the perpetrators on behalf of his daughter. “The Department of Children and Family Services is the last line of defense for defenseless children, and they walked away here and let her be abused.”
The girl’s mother and four men were previously convicted of sexual abuse in connection with the girl’s case.
DCFS Director Bobby Cagle said in a brief statement that the jury “reached the wrong conclusion” and that “the county remains steadfast in its efforts to protect the lives of children as we explore all our legal options. Nothing will shake our commitment to our mission of keeping kids safe.”
At the heart of the lawsuit was whether two DCFS social workers had reasonable suspicion the girl was being abused.
Social workers started providing services to the child in December 2009 after her mother reported that a man she had a relationship with had physically abused her and her children.
The lawsuit said the workers discovered that a different man living at the home, Louis Fluet, had previously been arrested on suspicion of child annoyance and molestation involving another child. He hadn’t been charged in that case, but the social workers concluded that Fluet’s presence in the home placed the girl at a high risk of being sexually abused, according to court documents.
The social workers did not refer the girl to see a forensic child abuse expert, who might have been able to discover that Fluet already had begun molesting her, Ring said.
Social workers demanded Fluet leave the home after the child told them she was sharing a room with him. Despite claims by the girl’s mother that Fluet had left, the workers later learned from the girl’s teacher and grandmother that he was still at the home, but they took no action, the lawsuit alleged.
The workers discovered that Fluet was taking the child to school and was sometimes alone with her, according to court documents.
The lawsuit said the girl’s mother abused drugs and allowed sex offenders and other criminals to live in the home. From 2010 to 2012, the child estimated that about 15 men raped or sexually abused her in other ways, according to the suit.
“She had no idea how to act as a 9- or 10-year-old,” Ring said. “She will need a lifetime of therapy.”
In court, Ring said he argued that Elbis Severo, one of the main social workers handling the case, rushed to close it.
“They were mandatory reporters and they never reported it to law enforcement,” Ring said.
During the trial, county attorneys argued that the abuse occurred after DCFS closed its case. The lawyers contended that DCFS workers did all they could and did not know enough about what was going on in the home to remove the girl from her mother until 2012, when she told her father’s girlfriend about the abuse. Ring acknowledged that the county did not know that the other three men eventually convicted of abuse sometimes stayed at the home.
In addition to finding the county legally liable for 45% of the award, jurors attributed another 45% to the girl’s mother and 10% to the four men convicted of sexually abusing her.
Ring said he doubted the mother or the men would be able to pay the full amount.
The entire award included $30 million for future emotional suffering, $15 million for past emotional suffering and $400,000 for the child’s future therapy.