Monday, March 5, 2012

Iowa settles suit over boy's foster care injuries

Associated Press

Iowa will pay $275,000 to settle a lawsuit brought against two state employees on behalf of a toddler who suffered brain damage from severe head injuries while in the state foster care system, according to records released this week.

The payment settles a lawsuit that alleged that an Iowa Department of Human Services worker and a supervisor were warned that Jayden Clark was suffering neglect and abuse while under the care of foster parents in Albia but failed to take action. Half of the money will be invested for the 4-year-old boy, who will get access when he turns 18, while his parents will get $15,000 apiece and his attorney will get $101,000 in fees.

The lawsuit in federal court continues against foster parents Jason and Christen Morgan, who have denied wrongdoing.

"We are satisfied with the way it came out. But because there is ongoing litigation against the foster parents, I really can't comment beyond that," said the boy's attorney, Jeffrey Lipman of Clive.

Authorities responded to the Morgans' home in February 2010 when Clark, then 2, was found unresponsive with extensive injuries to the head and were told he had fallen out of a bunk bed. Fighting for his life, the boy was treated for head trauma and a lacerated liver and was hospitalized and forced to undergo rehabilitation for months.

Local and state investigators conducted an extensive look into whether he was abused, but they filed no criminal charges. The lawsuit blames the foster parents' "abuse or neglect" for the injuries, without elaborating on how they occurred.

A DHS investigation resulted in a finding of confirmed child abuse that was not serious enough to be placed on the Child Abuse Registry, a designation used for cases involving a lack of proper supervision or physical abuse that was minor. In court documents, state lawyers said the finding was not for physical abuse and denied that "findings of neglect, as such, were made."

After the boy's hospitalization, child welfare officials removed his siblings from the home while then-Gov. Chet Culver expressed outrage and ordered an investigation.

The lawsuit alleges Clark's parents, Travis and April Clark, and a social worker started noticing significant black bruises across his forehead "from ear to ear" in January 2010 after he and three siblings were placed with the Morgans the prior month. The foster parents blamed his siblings for causing the bruises, but his parents and the social worker suspected abuse and reported it to the DHS worker and his supervisor, who failed to visit the home or conduct an investigation, the suit claims.

As the bruising got worse in following weeks, the social worker warned DHS about the "increased level of abuse and injury" and said the agency needed to consider removing him from the home, but no action was taken, the suit said. Clark's parents took photographs to document the bruising and also warned DHS, the lawsuit said.

Ultimately, Clark "suffered a closed head injury as a result of the abuse or neglect and has permanent brain damage," the lawsuit said. Lipman said the boy was now living with his parents, who are originally from Centerville, but he would not say where.

"He's always going to have some impairment from this," Lipman said.

In a memo made public with the details of the settlement, Assistant Attorney General Diane Stahle said the state decided on the cash payment after investigating the case and "balancing the likelihood of an adverse verdict against the likelihood of a defense verdict." The details were worked out during mediation, she wrote.

In court documents, state lawyers acknowledged DHS employees were twice told about the bruising to the boy but said that it was attributed to his siblings. The foster parents have denied they breached their duty to provide a safe environment for Jayden and also blamed his siblings for the bruises. Their attorney didn't return a phone message.

DHS spokesman Roger Munns declined comment on the case but said both employees named in the lawsuit remain in state employment, one by his agency and one by Iowa Workforce Development.


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