A New Jersey jury on Friday awarded $166 million to an infant beaten to the point of permanent blindness and brain damage by a parent that the state child-welfare agency allowed to keep custody.
The Essex County verdict against the Division of Youth and Family Services came after a two-week trial and about two hours of deliberation.
The state had made a $10 million settlement offer on Wednesday but plaintiff attorney David Mazie of Mazie Slater Katz and Freeman in Roseland rejected it.
The suit—brought by the child’s maternal grandmother Neomi Escobar, who had alerted DYFS to the father’s abusive tendencies—claimed that case worker Felix Umetiti and other agency officials negligently failed to remove Jadiel Velesquez from his parents’ care.
Escobar alleged that Umetiti recognized that the father was a danger but failed to obtain his criminal history, order a psychological evaluation or report the case to prosecutors or the regional diagnostic treatment center.
DYFS violated at least 17 of its own policies, the suit alleged.
According to court documents and other sources, on May 28, 2009, Joshua Velesquez and Vanessa Merchan of Hillside took Jadiel, then four months old, to Overlook Hospital’s Union campus with hemorrhages in both eyes and a bruise on his chin. Jadiel was then taken to Newark Beth Israel Medical Center and evaluated, but released.
Earlier that day, Escobar had called DYFS, saying Velesquez used drugs, suffered from bipolar disorder and was abusive. Umetiti met the parents at the hospital and interviewed them several times in the ensuing weeks.
Escobar, who sometimes cared for Jadiel, notified DYFS she had found a crack cocaine pipe in the baby’s diaper bag. Velesquez and Merchan claimed it belonged to a relative.
A short time later, Umetiti told the parents Jadiel was not to be left alone with Velesquez. A week after that, the couple brought Jadiel back to Overlook, where he was diagnosed with a lacerated frenulum—the tissue connecting the tongue to the mouth. DYFS received no report of the visit.
Escobar twice contacted police, saying Jadiel was being left alone with Velesquez against Umetiti’s instructions.
When Escobar filed a report with the Union County Prosecutor’s Office’s Child Abuse Unit, an investigator contacted Umetiti—who said he was still awaiting medical records.
A nurse conducted an in-home evaluation of Jadiel and recommended his referral to a DYFS regional diagnostic treatment center for abuse cases. That was not done, and there is no record of DYFS action after that.
Umetiti claimed he was on vacation for several weeks, though his time sheets indicated otherwise. His substitute admitted never reviewing Jadiel’s case.
On July 16, 2009, Velesquez assaulted Jadiel, and DYFS was notified that the child was taken to Jersey City Medical Center with serious head injuries and respiratory distress.
Velesquez pleaded guilty to child abuse and is serving a six-year sentence. Escobar and her husband adopted Jadiel and have cared for him since.
The child is blind, is unable to walk or talk, is fed through a stomach tube and requires full-time professional care.
Mazie, during his closing argument, said lifetime medical care for Jadiel would cost more than $60 million but urged jurors to award what they saw fit.
They awarded $105 million for future medical expenses, $57.6 million for pain and suffering, $1.4 million for future lost wages, and $1.9 million for Escobar’s past lost services.
The panel apportioned 100 percent of the fault to DYFS and rejected defenses claiming that the agency was entitled to immunity because it acted in good faith and reasonably.
Mazie says he was not surprised by the size of the verdict, “given how egregious the acts of the defendants were.”
DYFS trial counsel John North, of Greenbaum, Rowe, Smith & Davis of Woodbridge, had moved for dismissal after the close of the plaintiff’s case, claiming unqualified immunity for discretionary acts, but Superior Court Judge James Rothschild denied the motion.
North deferred comment to DYFS. Its spokesman, Ernest Landante Jr., declined comment.
In an internal email distributed Friday, Allison Blake, commissioner of DYFS’s parent agency, the Department of Children and Families, said she and counsel are considering further action. “The needless suffering of any child is deeply troubling, and I share the hurt and anger we all feel when a tragedy like this occurs,” Blake wrote.
But she added that the “child welfare system has undergone a major reform and restructuring that has continued in full force since July 2009.”
Escobar also asserted claims against Overlook, Newark Beth Israel and individual medical professionals, who settled earlier this year for $7.4 million.■