Monday, November 10, 2008

ACS failed Hailey, suit says

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Estate contends that brute who took tot's life should have set off alarm bells with caseworkers

Friday, November 07, 2008


The city's child-protection agency should have foreseen that toddler Hailey Gonzalez was in mortal danger at the hands of her mother's boyfriend.

That's the claim the slain 20-month-old's estate is making in a lawsuit filed this week, alleging the Administration for Children's Services and its caseworkers, through gross incompetence, error and indifference, overlooked the toddler's horrific home life until it was too late.

"This case is about the unspeakably brutal, and entirely avoidable, murder of a two-year-old girl," reads the first line of the 18-page lawsuit.

Hailey died last August, about a week after her mother's boyfriend, Edwin Garcia, slammed her headfirst into a playpen inside their New Brighton apartment. Her mother, Marlene Medina, waited five hours to call 911 after finding that the young girl had stopped breathing.


The lawsuit catalogues a litany of horrors and domestic abuse incidents connected to Ms. Medina -- all incidents that ACS already had documented, the suit claims.

Sonia Cintron, Hailey's grandmother, said the estate filed the lawsuit -- which doesn't specify damages -- "so they (ACS) can acknowledge the fact that they made a huge mistake. I'd like to see changes."

Hailey's estate is being administered by Gary Gotlin, the Richmond County public administrator. If the court ends up awarding damages, Ms. Cintron says, she hopes the money will go to the college funds of Hailey's young half-sisters, and possibly to a foundation in the toddler's name.

"I personally don't want any money," she said.

An ACS spokeswoman declined comment yesterday, referring all questions to the city's Law Department.

"We have just received the legal papers. This is an extremely tragic matter, and we will review the complaint in detail," said Kate O'Brien Ahlers, a Law Department spokeswoman. The lawsuit, which was written and filed by Manhattan-based lawyer Eric Hecker, chronicles Ms. Medina's history with ACS.

Ms. Medina herself was born into an "extremely troubled home" -- her mother had an IQ of about 60, and a long history of mental illness. In 1992, when Ms. Medina was 10 years old, "she was repeatedly raped by her then step-father," the lawsuit claims, and those assaults came to light only after she became so ill that she was hospitalized for numerous sexually transmitted diseases.

She was placed in foster care, and in 1999, on weekend visits with her mother, she was raped again -- twice, this time by her new stepfather. She became pregnant, and had an abortion.

In 2000, while still under the care of ACS, Ms. Medina was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, the lawsuit states.

Over the next seven years, Ms. Medina entered into a series of relationships with abusive men.

She became pregnant in 2000, and gave birth to her first child, Elizabeth Santiago, that September. The child's father, Jason Santiago, attacked her while she was in labor, and ACS removed Elizabeth from their care.

In 2002, she began a relationship with Manuel Gonzalez, Hailey's father and Ms. Cintron's son. ACS was still involved in Elizabeth's case, and caseworkers documented that Gonzalez was "extremely controlling."


In November 2005, Hailey was born, and two months later, while the couple was living in a Brooklyn homeless shelter, Gonzalez beat Hailey because she would not stop crying.

Still, ACS took six weeks to file an abuse case against Gonzalez, and although Ms. Medina was told by the agency that she was required to finish domestic violence counseling as a condition of keeping Hailey, ACS officials never followed up on that requirement, the lawsuit alleges.

In February 2006, while she was living in a Manhattan homeless shelter, Ms. Medina started dating Edwin Garcia, the man who ultimately would kill Hailey.

Garcia actually told a caseworker that he was "depressed" and "intended to hospitalize himself." The caseworker informed ACS, and despite the fact that two teams of caseworkers were involved with Ms. Medina, no one checked Garcia's background.

"Had ACS performed a background check on Garcia, it would have learned that Garcia had a substantial criminal record, including a conviction for an assault on a child," the lawsuit claims.

In August 2006, when an ACS caseworker paid a visit to Ms. Medina at her new apartment, she didn't come to the door for 10 minutes and scolded the worker for intruding. Garcia was there -- clad only in his underwear -- but neither he nor Ms. Medina gave the caseworker his last name.

Another visit in October brought another caseworker face to face with Garcia. "The ACS caseworker did not even inquire as to his identity, let alone investigate whether he was living there, let alone review the copious ACS case records making it clear that there was ample basis for concern that Garcia was prone to violence and that Medina would do nothing to protect Hailey," according to the lawsuit.

Medina gave birth again in June 2007, to Yarmilette Garcia, prompting additional ACS visits. Ms. Medina canceled one of those visits, which was scheduled just eight days before the fatal beating.

Ms. Medina pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter in exchange for a two- to six-year prison sentence. Garcia, who pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter, was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

In addition to the city and the agency, the lawsuit names 17 individual caseworkers and supervisors.

"If I had my way, I'd fire them all. I'd fire them all, and I'd get some real people in there that know ... what it's like to lose a child," Ms. Cintron said. "They don't save children. If anything, a handful would be by the grace of God."


John Annese is a news reporter for the Advance.

He may be reached at

ACS failed Hailey, suit says -

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