3rd foster abuse lawsuit filed

More than $356 million sought from man, placement agency

Jul 16, 2011 |

SALISBURY -- A third juvenile who alleges he was sexually abused has filed a multimillion-dollar civil lawsuit against a Mardela Springs former foster father and a private foster care placement agency in Circuit Court this week.

The plaintiff is the most recent alleged victim to sue Stephen James Merritt, 39, and the private foster care company, MENTOR Maryland, that placed him in Merritt's home.

Two lawsuits, which seek more than $356 million in damages, alleging similar allegations of sex abuse at the hand of Merritt and negligence on behalf of MENTOR were filed earlier this month.

The civil complaints were filed four months after Merritt, 39, was criminally charged and indicted in the sexual abuse of seven adolescent boys inside his home located on his family's compound, Last Chance Farm, for more than a decade.

Authorities have identified seven male juveniles who they believe were sexually abused by Merritt, who was their foster father at the time.

Circuit Court criminal jury trials for Merritt have been scheduled for August, September and October.

In the most recent lawsuit, the plaintiff is asking for $225 million in damages in the most recent lawsuit filed; $210 million from Merritt and $15 million from MENTOR.

The 13-page complaint, filed in Wicomico County Circuit Court on Tuesday by Michael Belsky of Schlachman, Belsky & Winer PA on behalf of a plaintiff identified as "John Doe No. 3, " alleges the victim was sexually abused by Merritt from 2003 to January 2005.

The complaint also alleges MENTOR Maryland received a "notice of alarming grievances" against Merritt while the alleged victim was in his care.

Belsky also filed a motion asking the court to protect the identity of the victim and allow him to continued to be identified as "John Doe" or seal parts of the record that reveal his name or other means of identification.

Similar requests asking the courts to withhold the identities of the victims were filed with the previous lawsuits filed against MENTOR and Merritt.

Merritt was taken into police custody and held at the Wicomico County Detention Center since March after police interviews with two alleged victims. A third victim was identified later that month. Four more victims were identified by late June.

The juveniles were removed from Merritt's home immediately after the allegations were made, and Merritt's home was placed on an "inactive status," according to Kerry Ahern-Brown, MENTOR Maryland executive director. Shortly after the home was closed, it was no longer certified to receive future juvenile placements, she added.

MENTOR Maryland is part of the MENTOR Network, a national organization that offers programs and services to individuals with mental disabilities, at-risk children and their families and individuals with brain and spinal cord injuries.

Merritt and his wife were both licensed foster care parents through MENTOR Maryland, according to Ahern-Brown, who said married couples are jointly licensed and are required to undergo a screening process mandated by state regulations and the organization's policies.