Broward County child welfare officials failed to protect an infant who suffered brain damage after he was allowed to continue living with his mother and her boyfriend despite signs of abuse, one of the child's attorneys told jurors Monday.
Two months before Jace Manning's skull was fractured, his grandmother warned authorities that the 5-month-old was in danger after he was hospitalized with an unexplained bruise under his chin, said Gary M. Cohen, part of the legal team suing the Broward Sheriff's Office and Broward County on Jace's behalf. Opening statements in the Broward Circuit Court case were Monday.
"This never should have happened," Cohen said. "They had two months to get it right."
An attorney for the Sheriff's Office countered that the child protection investigator assigned to Jace's case did her job, trying to do what was right while following the law. The investigator was only "one spoke in the wheel" of the child protection system, said Sheri Weissenborn, part of the sheriff's legal team in the case.
Jace was rushed to an emergency room on Feb. 2, 2006, after his mother's boyfriend called 911 to report the boy was having a seizure in their Coral Springs apartment. The head trauma has left the now 5-year-old boy developmentally disabled. He needs intensive speech therapy and walks with a limp.
Jace's attorneys did not indicate to jurors Monday how much money they are seeking for the boy, who now lives with his grandmother. The initial lawsuit filed on Jace's behalf had listed 10 defendants, but the other eight defendants — including the state Department of Children & Families and Florida Department of Health — have resolved their parts of the case out of court. The settlements with the state agencies were not readily available Monday.
No one was ever criminally charged with hurting Jace. The Broward State Attorney's Office concluded it couldn't prove who injured the boy.
Cohen told the six-person jury that Jace was first taken to the hospital in October 2005 after his mother's boyfriend said he had to perform CPR on the boy when he appeared to stop breathing.
The next time he was hospitalized — Dec. 1, 2005 — the boy was lethargic, anemic and bruised, Cohen said. That's when Jace's grandmother, Denise Manning, and a hospital employee separately called the Florida Abuse Hotline, prompting Jace's first contact with the child welfare system.
Jace's grandmother handed a letter to child welfare officials stating she believed he was in danger.
Denise Manning wrote that her daughter's boyfriend thought it was funny to scare the baby and when he looked at the boy he was reminded that his girlfriend had been with another man. On one occasion, the boyfriend cut off the arms and legs of one of Jace's toys because he mad at the boy's mother, Jace's grandmother wrote.
Cohen said the child protection investigator in Jace's case failed to conduct the needed interviews and approached the case as if it was the result of clashes between the boy's mother and grandmother. Jace was allowed to go back to his mother with Broward County's Child Protection Team recommending she receive services and counseling and her boyfriend have no contact with the boy, Cohen said.
A week after Jace left the hospital, the medical director of the Child Protection Team reviewed the boy's records and concluded there was evidence to support the boy was being abused, Cohen said.
Yet Jace was allowed to stay with his mother, who was still living at her boyfriend's apartment, Cohen said.
Weissenborn said the Sheriff's Office did its job investigating the abuse report and that it's up to the Florida Attorney General's Office to decide whether to petition for a child's removal from a home. The ultimate decision would be left to a judge, Weissenborn said.
Broward County is being sued because it is responsible for the Child Protection Team. The county's attorney, Reginald Hicks, argued the team only does medical assessments and referrals and has no authority over what happens to a child.
Testimony is expected to continue Tuesday in the case before Circuit Judge John Bowman. The trial is expected to last at least three weeks.