Lawsuit alleged Tulare County Child Welfare Services failed to act in time to prevent an infant boy from being malnourished, neglected and subjected to ice baths, sun baths
TULARE COUNTY – Tulare County Child Welfare Services recently paid a record $32 million to settle a lawsuit over its failure to prevent the abuse and neglect of an infant boy who suffered permanent brain damage.
The child’s paternal grandmother and temporary guardian, Patrizia Sanchez, filed the lawsuit against the county on behalf of her infant grandson on March 17, 2021. Sanchez’s case was taken on by Los Angeles-based law firm Panish, Shea, Boyle, Ravipudi LLP which filed an amended complaint on Feb. 7, 2022. In a Jan. 30 press release, the firm stated it believed the settlement was the largest ever obtained against a child protective services agency by a child abuse survivor in the state of California.
“[The child]’s experience represents one of the worst cases of what happens when Child Welfare Services fails to fulfill its basic obligations,” lead attorney Brian Panish said. “There is no amount of money that will restore [his] quality of life and we will never know the life he could have lived if the County had just done its job. We hope this settlement serves as a wake-up call to child welfare service agencies everywhere.”
Sanchez was suing the county for failure to perform their state-mandated duties to respond to any report of a child in danger within 10 days; that negligent hiring, supervision or retention of its employees led to the “unfitness or incompetence” of the employees handling of reports of abuse; and general negligence for not investigating J.G.’s father’s reported actions and failing to open an abuse case despite determining Child Welfare Services were necessary.
“If CWS had discharged its mandatory duties, this tragedy could have been averted,” the lawsuit stated. “Indeed, merely looking at the Child during this time would have revealed a dire situation.”
Abused by his Father
The child, only identified in court documents by his initials J.G., was born on Sept. 7, 2019 to John Gonzalez and Jacqueline Navarro of Lindsay. According to the lawsuit, J.G.’s father did not believe in modern medicine and is an avid follower of Dr. Robert Morse, a Florida doctor who uses Naturopathic medicine, or holistic medicine using natural remedies. Morse’s promotion of iridology, the practice of studying the iris of the eye—such as patterns and colors—to determine information about a patient’s health, raw food diets which caused hallucinations, and claims diseases are not real and that the body can heal itself have made him a pariah in the medical field. More specifically in the case of J.G., Morse teaches cancer is caused by eating cooked or processed foods which mothers pass on to their children through breast milk.
In accordance with Morse’s “medical” philosophy, J.G. was delivered at home via what is known as a lotus birth, which involves leaving the umbilical cord and placenta attached to the newborn until it falls away on its own. J.G. was forced to feed off the placenta for approximately a week after his birth.
Within a week of being born, Gonzalez began subjecting J.G. to extreme temperatures. The father posted photos of this conduct on his public social media accounts.
“For example, J.G. was repeatedly and routinely subjected to ice baths, consisting of a tub outside,
with water and ice in it,” court documents state. “The parents would keep heaters in his room at night, under the belief the high temperatures would expel toxins from the Child. Likewise, the Child was given ‘sun baths’, exposing him to extreme heat for prolonged periods of time.”
The child was also deprived of breastmilk or a breastmilk substitute, crucial to the development of newborns and infants, and instead was only provided with a plant based diet of raw, pureed fruit as “part of a premeditated experiment to demonstrate that it was possible to raise an entirely plant-based baby,” court documents read.
According to court documents, Gonzalez believed that every disease is related to a mucus-clogged system, which itself results from the accumulation of undigested and unnatural food substances, commencing in childhood and that “breast milk was toxic and full of carcinogens.” He believed that vitality depends on removing these obstructions, and that fruit was all that was required in order to attain optimal health.
“The father further believed that prolonged fasting was necessary for the release of toxins within the body, [a] process he thought was capable of curing disease,” the court documents continued.
Neglected by Protective Services
Sanchez became concerned about her grandson as his malnourished physique persisted into the second month of his life. Sanchez reported J.G.’s poor health, lack of development and poor nourishment to the Tulare County Child Welfare Services.
On Oct. 10, 2019, social worker Maria Alcaraz and registered nurse Yvonne Wright visited Gonzalez’s home with Sanchez and determined J.G. was “severely malnourished.” They educated the mother on the importance of breastmilk or a proper substitute and both parents agreed to voluntarily participate in a child safety plan for three months; however, none of these sessions ever included the father.
“Marcia Alcarez did not investigate the father at any time, despite the fact that he was the primary focus of the child abuse referral, had an extensive abuse history involving deprivation of food, and had regular contact with the Child,” the amended complaint read.
J.G.’s health improved during the safety plan but rapidly declined shortly after the three months because the parents stopped providing milk and instead only provided J.G. with raw fruits. “As a result of what he was fed and the lack of nourishment he became bloated, failed to grow, had rashes over his entire body, and showed significant signs of malnutrition,” according to court documents.
On March 7, 2020, Sanchez called CWS 10 times to report her grandson’s male nourishment and neglect but the calls were never returned and never documented, according to the civil suit. Two days later, Sanchez called CWS again and detailed J.G.’s condition to social worker Evelyn Rodriquez during a 17-minute call. The report was assigned to social worker Heriberto Martinez, who didn’t investigate the claims at all because he was on leave due to “high-risk for COVID due to an illness” but also did not pass the report on to anyone else so the report sat on his desk.
Under state law, the Welfare and Institutions Code mandates that County welfare departments respond to any report of imminent danger to a child immediately and all other reports within 10 calendar days.
Sanchez called back two days later and spoke with social worker Evelyn Rodriguez about the neglect and malnourishment. When CWS did not respond, Sanchez reported the child abuse and neglect to the Lindsay Police Department which reported it to CWS. On June 23, 2020, potentially in response to another undocumented call concerning J.G.’s neglect, the case on Martinez’s desk was reassigned to social worker Yolanda Gomez. A video of her deposition shows Gomez, less than six months on the job when she received the referral, repeatedly saying “I don’t know” in response to questions about her responsibilities as a social worker, if a father influencing a mother to abuse a child was concerning, if a sick baby was cause for concern, and if a sick baby should be taken to a doctor on a routine basis.
“Those were the two social workers who were assigned to investigate the circumstances, and did not do so,” said attorney Wyatt Vespermann, who was the primary contact for the case, in an interview with The Sun-Gazette.
Tulare County CWS did not investigate Sanchez’s third report of neglect until Aug. 25, 2020, five months after speaking with a social worker on the phone and numerous reports of neglect between March and April 2020.
“From March 2020 to August 1, 2020, J.G.’s health deteriorated,” court documents stated. “The Child’s entire body was covered in a rash, his extremities were swollen, and he was not growing. J.G.’s rash, swelling, and other symptoms were a direct result of the lack of proper nutrition and inhumane treatment.”
The response came after J.G. was taken to a hospital on Aug. 1 in Southern California. J.G.’s parents had taken him and several of his half-brothers, who had been subjected to similar practices when they were younger, to Costa Mesa, Calif. on a family vacation. When they attempted to wake J.G. up on Aug. 1, 2020, he was unresponsive. According to court documents, the parents had only fed him a single fig that day. He was taken to Children’s Hospital of Orange County where doctors specializing in infant care found him to have “profound brain damage.” Doctors attributed his brain damage to his diet and lack of nutrition which essentially deprived his brain of oxygen and immediately placed him on life support.
When it was determined J.G.’s brain damage was irreversible, at just 10 months old, life support was discontinued, but J.G. did not die.
“Tulare County Child Welfare Services exists for one reason: to protect the smallest and most vulnerable members of our society. When it came to protecting J.G., Child Welfare Services failed miserably,” Vespermann said.
Covered Up by CWS
When the County became aware of J.G.’s resulting condition, Vespermann said they immediately set out to orchestrate a cover up – going so far as to alter records in an effort to change the timeline of events. Despite its egregious acts, Vespermann said the County has denied any responsibility, liability, or accountability throughout this case and fought for over a year to deny justice to J.G. The landmark settlement was reached just weeks before a trial was set to begin in Visalia that would have spotlighted alarming systemic issues within the county’s department of Children Welfare Services.
Vespermann said every interaction on a CWS case is required to be logged under state regulations. The law also says the logs should not be altered in order to keep an accurate record of the report. Vespermann said the county’s log it received after filing the lawsuit was different then the one it had obtained before the lawsuit despite being for the exact same time periods. The new log’s changes including new entries backdated to November 2020.
“They have now created a document that makes it seem like they did conduct an investigation,” Vespermann said.
After being hospitalized in Southern California on Aug. 1, the child protective services agency for Orange County opened an investigation into J.G.’s condition the next day. Tulare County CWS was notified of J.G.’s condition on or about Aug. 4, 2020 but did not assign social worker Jennie Perez to the case until Aug. 25, 2020. Perez announced herself as part of a “clean-up crew,” with the responsibility of cleaning up neglected cases, according to court documents. The CWS “clean-up crew” re-opened the March 2020 referral in August to make it appear that an investigation had taken place.
“As a legal, direct and proximate result of the aforementioned conduct of Defendants Evelyn Rodriquez, Heriberto Martinez, Maria Alcaraz … Plaintiff J.G. suffered profound and permanent brain damage, and caused cortical visual impairment, seizure disorder, cerebral palsy-movement disorder, and dysphagia, amongst numerous other orthopedic, neurologic, and metabolic disabilities, all of which said injuries have caused and continue to cause Plaintiff great physical and mental pain and suffering,” the lawsuit claimed.
Nurtured by his Grandmother
Sanchez said the record settlement will be spent on J.G.’s continued physical therapy, medical treatments and medical equipment to help in his recovery. To date, Panish, Shea, Boyle, Ravipudi LLP have helped Sanchez get J.G. the care he needs. In an effort to improve his quality of life, J.G. goes to therapy five days per week and has now developed more of an ability to hold a seated position, a sense of humor and his own personality.
“When I picked him up in the medical foster home in Orange County he was not aware of anything other than just a screaming, baby that was in constant pain 24/7 and didn’t really sleep,” Sanchez said. “Now if I sing to him and dance in front of him, he starts laughing. He’s aware, he’s just trapped in his little body.”
The therapy sessions are at the Charlie Mitchell Children’s Center at Valley Children’s Hospital where he has access to a team of neurologists, psychiatrists and physical therapists. The law firm included photos and videos of the child to show the damage that was done. One video, when J.G. was just one month old, showed the child with a sunken face and extremely thin. J.G. began to fill out after being in his grandmother’s care. By the age of 2 he had chubby cheeks, but was unable to walk on his own. Instead, J.G. was confined to a stroller that kept his spine straight and his body slightly reclined in order to make him feel comfortable. A video of J.G. at two years old showed him unable to sit up on his own and unable to support and hold up his own head. Another video showed physical therapy sessions where the child was working to keep his back straight and hold himself up in a seated position at age 3.
“He wants to play. He’s fully aware of other kids playing around with them,” Sanchez said. “It’s very heartbreaking sometimes, because he just stares and just is just so focused on other kids playing.”
More important for Sanchez was another court ruling, naming her J.G.’s adopted guardian. That ruling came on Jan. 19, despite her efforts to adopt him beginning nearly three years ago. Given J.G.’s condition, placing him in another household was not only an urgency but an emergency to prevent future harm. In order to adopt her grandson, the county needed to produce a birth certificate to the court. However, there was no birth certificate because of the lotus birth which his father knew had to be done at home because it is not medically accepted.
Vespermann said the county did not have an interest in making the process easy, because J.G. was in the unique position of suing the county but also being a ward of the state, under the care of Tulare County CWS. Legally, a child cannot be adopted out of foster care without a birth certificate. Vespermann said whoever was considered J.G.’s legal guardian would have access to state funds, which in the case of Sanchez, could be used to pay for attorney fees in a case against the county.
“They knew that long before we knew that and so it just seemed to be part of a playbook,” Vespermann said. “It just makes you fearful of what’s happening to the people that don’t have a team of lawyers standing behind them?”
While the $32 million settlement is impactful, Sanchez said this case isn’t really about money. The concerning culture within Tulare County CWS is something both Sanchez and Vespermann are continuing to identify, point out and call for change. According to a UC Berkeley analysis of CWS data, from 2020, when J.G.’s case began, to the present, Tulare County CWS responded to less than one-third of its cases within the state-mandated 10-day window, the lowest in the state for any county with enough cases to avoid identifying anyone’s identity. The state average was 91.39% with most counties in the Valley hovering between 79% (Madera) and 94% (Kern).
“This is uniquely a Tulare County problem,” Vespermann said. “The supervisors, the managers, the CWS attorneys, are the puppeteers behind the scenes, who are using the levers of power available to them in a way that is not helping the children, and it’s only helping that either their own bottom line or their own self interests,” Vespermann said.
Sanchez said she continues to fight for change in Tulare County’s CWS system. She said she has sent letters to the Tulare County Board of Supervisors, Lindsay City Council, the Lindsay Police Department, Assemblyman Devon Mathis’ office and is looking to send more to other state legislators.
“This is not done. It’s not over. It’s not resolved,” Sanchez said. “Nothing’s happening. This is about our community, and our children, you know, the Forgotten children of CWS.”