Florida Agency Must Pay $15M For Botched Child-Abuse Probe

A jury in the 7th Judicial Circuit of Florida awarded $15 million to an 8-year-old girl after finding that the state Department of Children and Families (DCF) was negligent in investigating reports that her mother and stepfather severely abused her as a toddler.

Police car at apartment building

ByCarolyn Casey, J.D.


Published on January 26, 2024

Police car at apartment building

Hotline Alert on Child Abuse

The 18-month-old little girl (H.H.) lived with her biological mother and stepfather, and her 3-year-old brother (C.H.) who had cerebral palsy since his birth. In May 2017, someone contacted the child abuse hotline to express concern for the children’s living environment. The person reported that the family’s home had no furniture and that the parents sold drugs there.

In the lawsuit against DCF, the plaintiff asserted that before the hotline report the agency knew that the stepfather had a hefty criminal history including driving under the influence and burglary charges and a four-year prison sentence for police officer battery and other offenses. The complaint also alleged that the parents harbored a fugitive in the home where the family lived.

Department of Children and Families’ Abuse Investigation

The agency undertook an investigation following the hotline report. On multiple occasions, DCF agents visited the family's home and a motel where they had relocated during the investigation. The plaintiffs alleged that the investigative agents did not require the parents to take drug tests or ask why the family moved to a motel.

In its July 2017 final risk assessment, the DCF determined that the little girl’s risk level was "moderate." The investigative report said she was safe with her mother and stepfather.

However, a surge of reports arrived in September 2017 saying that the girl was being severely abused and neglected. That same month H.H. landed at a hospital for treatment of fractures and bruises. Sadly, according to her guardian’s lawsuit, the toddler suffered a brain bleed after she suffered a horrible beating. The toddler fell into critical condition.

Lawsuit Allegations of Negligent DCF Investigation

In 2021, H.H.’s guardian filed a lawsuit against the state's Department of Children and Families complaining that the agency was negligent in investigating her abuse as a toddler. The complaint alleges that the DCF’s failure to properly investigate the abuse in 2017 led to the girl’s permanent injuries that her parents inflicted upon her.

H.H. continues to suffer from "catastrophic permanent injuries" including quadriplegia ( paralysis from the neck down) from the abuse she endured. For the rest of her life, H.H. will require constant supportive care, supervision, monitoring, and various therapies.

Failure to Coordinate with A Criminal Investigation of Parental Abuse

The complaint states that H.H.’s mother and stepfather were convicted of aggravated child abuse and drug possession. They will be in prison for decades for these offenses.

Yet even when the agency knew of the criminal investigations against the parents and the attendant risk of harm to the toddler, the DCF failed to establish a joint investigation with law enforcement. Further, the lawsuit asserts that the agency failed to speak with any additional contacts who could have provided information about the children, the caregivers, and the drug use and traffic in the home. Tragically, instead, H.H. remained in an unsafe home.

The Verdict

After a week-long trial in Volusia County civil court, the jury took only three hours to issue a verdict in favor of the young girl. The fact-finders found that the Florida DCF’s negligence caused H.H.’s loss and injuries.

The verdict awards the girl $15 million in damages, including $10 million for her future treatment expenses and nursing care.

Stacie Schmerling and Lisa Elliott of the Justice for Kids Division of Kelley Kronenberg commented that they fought “to ensure that she will be able to live at home with her adoptive family and have the care, dignity, and resources that she deserves for the rest of her life," Schmerling hopes that the DCF and Florida's leaders will respect the jury's decision and now fight with us to help H.H.

Jocelyn Dopson-Rodriguez and Jeffrey S. Weiss of Garganese Weiss D'Agresta & Salzman who represented the defendant did not immediately comment on the outcome. However, a representative of the DCF said they are exploring appeal options.

Initially after the complaint, the defendant claimed that it was not responsible for H.H.’s injuries and that it had sovereign immunity.

Attorneys can learn more about this case in H.H. v. Florida Dept. of Children and Families, case number 2021 31168 CICI, in the 7th Judicial Circuit Court of Florida.

About the author

Carolyn Casey, J.D.

Carolyn Casey, J.D.

Carolyn Casey is a seasoned professional with extensive experience in legal tech, e-discovery, and legal content creation. As Principal of WritMarketing, she combines her decade of Big Law experience with two decades in software leadership to provide strategic consulting in product strategy, content, and messaging for legal tech clients. Previously, Carolyn served as Legal Content Writer for Expert Institute, Sr. Director of Industry Relations at AccessData, and Director of Product Marketing at Zapproved, focusing on industry trends in forensic investigations, compliance, privacy, and e-discovery. Her career also includes roles at Iron Mountain as Head of Legal Product Management and Sr. Product Marketing Manager, where she led product and marketing strategies for legal services, and at Fios Inc as Sr. Marketing Manager, specializing in eDiscovery solutions.

Her early legal expertise was honed at Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison, where she developed legal strategies for mergers, acquisitions, and international finance matters. Carolyn's education includes a J.D. from American University Washington College of Law, where she was a Senior Editor for the International Law Journal and participated in a pioneering China Summer Law Program. She also holds an AB in Political Science with a minor in art history from Stanford University. Her diverse skill set encompasses research, creative writing, copy editing, and a deep understanding of legal product marketing and international legal trends.

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