State appeals $16M award to girl nearly killed by abuse, after DPHHS didn’t intervene
(Daily Montanan) Earlier this year a Cascade County District Court said that the Montana Department of Health and Human Services failed to protect Seraphina Wilson and awarded her guardian more than $16 million for ongoing expenses related to her care, which she will need for the rest of her life.
Even after several welfare complaints against Wilson’s father and his live-in girlfriend, Alicia Jo Hocter, a court said child protective services didn’t remove her from the house, and she was abused so severely that she will need live-in care for the rest of her life.
Attorneys Ben and Raph Graybill and Lawrence Anderson outlined the injuries in the Supreme Court appeal:
“The result was as foreseeable as it was tragic: Sera’s head was struck repeatedly against her crib before she was thrown. At the hospital, doctors noticed that her eyeballs were filled with blood. On examination, they found that her optic nerve fibers were swollen or severed. Sera has permanent brain damage, blindness, severe learning disabilities and requires a feeding tube for her nutrition.”
However, after the court awarded her $16,653,538, the State of Montana has appealed the decision, arguing that it did take proper precautions, and if it is liable, that state law caps damages at less than $1 million.
The Montana Supreme Court will decide the appeal.
Attorneys for the State of Montana argue that even though the Cascade County Court had determined the state was grossly negligent in Wilson’s case, the court record demonstrates that CPS satisfied the legal definition of “reasonable care,” and therefore should be immune from prosecution and the financial award. They have also argued that state law caps the maximum liability at $750,000.
“The undisputed record confirms DPHHS’s employees used reasonable care,” the appeal said. “After receiving each report, DPHHS timely analyzed the report, assessed the appropriate response and took appropriate actions (if any).”
Attorneys for the state pointed out that the state arranged a visit to a doctor and referred an incident to the Great Falls Police Department.
“The facts permit only one reasonable conclusion: DPHHS demonstrated more than ‘slight care,'” court documents said. “Neither DPHHS nor the Great Falls Police Department were able to determine who inflicted the bruising.”
The Cascade County court also found that the DPHHS should have been able to reasonably anticipate the abusive behavior of Hocter, who was the live-in girlfriend of Wilson’s father and lived with her. The court found that repeated welfare calls and the treatment of Wilson, including when she was left alone as a toddler and filthy living conditions, should have been sufficient to act.
State attorneys Mikel Moore, Maxon Davis and Eric Brooks argue that even if the Montana Supreme Court doesn’t reverse the lower court’s ruling, then it should at least send the case back for a retrial.
Alicia Jo Hocter was convicted in 2010 of aggravated assault and criminal endangerment for the “catastrophic” abuse inflicted on Wilson. She is serving a 20-year sentence on the two charges and is currently incarcerated at the Women’s Prison in Billings, according to the Department of Corrections online database.