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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Coffeyville couple sues SRS worker after granddaughter's beating death

BY TIM POTTER
The Wichita Eagle

A family's lawsuit accuses a state social worker of gross negligence, saying she failed to protect a 23-month-old Coffeyville girl beaten to death by her father's meth-addicted girlfriend.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court Tuesday, accuses SRS social worker Linda Gillen of not taking steps to remove Brooklyn Coons and her brother from a dangerous household after the maternal grandparents repeatedly raised concerns about injuries to Brooklyn.

The lawsuit — brought by Brooklyn's maternal grandparents, Larry and Mary Crosetto — contends Gillen "failed to act to protect their grandchildren because of a pre-existing grudge." The grudge involved actions the Crosettos took years earlier in their adoption of Brooklyn's mother, Angela Crosetto Coons, the lawsuit says.

Brooklyn's death is a case of a social worker who remained determined to keep children with a parent even when it put the children at serious risk, the lawsuit contends. Other agencies that could have protected Brooklyn deferred to SRS because they thought the social worker was taking steps to monitor the girl, it says.

In an interview, Larry Crosetto said Gillen, a licensed social worker with the Coffeyville office of the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services (SRS), "was aware there was a situation in that home. She didn't investigate and find out what the situation was.

"What we hope to do is get SRS to act in these situations ... and prevent it from happening to another family," Crosetto said.

SRS won't comment because of the pending litigation, spokeswoman Michelle Ponce said Friday.

Gillen remains employed as an SRS social worker, Ponce said.

Gillen could not be reached for comment.

The litigation is filed in federal court because of the argument that Brooklyn and her survivors were denied their constitutional rights by the state, said Randy Rathbun, a Wichita lawyer and former U.S. attorney for Kansas who is representing the Crosettos in their lawsuit.

The Kansas Attorney General's Office prosecuted the girlfriend in Brooklyn's death, which occurred on Jan. 20, 2008. The girlfriend later married Brooklyn's father. On Dec. 30, 2009, a judge sentenced Melissa Wells Coons to life in prison for the murder of Brooklyn.

The same day the judge sentenced Melissa Coons, Brooklyn's father, Randy Coons, was charged with aggravated child endangerment, said Ashley Anstaett, spokeswoman for the Attorney General's Office.

The lawsuit against Gillen seeks more than $75,000 in damages.

The first loss

The Crosettos had dealt with a tragic loss less than six months before their granddaughter's murder. On Aug. 9, 2007, Brooklyn's mother, Angela Coons, died of a sudden illness at a Wichita hospital. She was 24.

Angela Coons had moved her small children — Brooklyn and son Christian, now 7 — to be with her in Wichita just weeks before she died, Larry Crosetto said. Angela Coons was working in Wichita as a Comcare caseworker.

After their daughter became ill, the Crosettos rushed to Wichita. After she died, they brought their grandchildren back to their Coffeyville home, Crosetto said.

Before Angela Coons moved to Wichita, she had left Randy Coons and moved in with her parents. Because Angela was busy completing her degree at Pittsburg State University, the Crosettos had "practically raised" their grandchildren, Larry Crosetto said.

The weekend after they buried their daughter, their son-in-law, Randy Coons, showed up on their front porch with two Coffeyville police officers and demanded to take the children, Crosetto said. The son-in-law moved the children in with him and his girlfriend, Melissa Wells.

"Within a week of the kids being put into that home, Brooklyn showed up on a weekend with her lip stitched together," Crosetto said.

A narrative, timeline

The lawsuit provides this timeline:

In the fall of 2007, the Crosettos started seeing bruises on Brooklyn, and their granddaughter received medical treatment twice for suspicious injuries.

"The Crosettos began to get more and more concerned about the bruises on their grandchildren," the lawsuit says.

On Nov. 5, 2007, school officials told Gillen, the SRS social worker, that Christian had bruising that looked suspicious, the lawsuit says.

According to the lawsuit narrative: The next day, Larry Crosetto tried to reach Gillen about the bruising, but got no return call, so he tried to contact her again on Nov. 14, 15 and 16, eventually reaching her on Nov. 20. Gillen said she had interviewed a school official, the children's father, his girlfriend and Christian. Gillen indicated she had been at the girlfriend's home, the lawsuit says.

Gillen said a case had been opened and she would make a recommendation in about 30 days. "She refused to discuss the suspected drug situation in the home," the lawsuit says.

Crosetto said the grandchildren remained with the girlfriend during the week; the grandparents got the children on weekends. They would exchange the children in the front yard of the girlfriend's home. He said he wasn't allowed inside.

He became concerned about the conditions in the house, noticing that the children had rashes that appeared to be from fleas and that they looked "filthy dirty" every Friday night when he or his wife picked them up.

"Sometimes it was hard to tell if it was bruises or dirt," he said.

"I tried everything to find out what was going on inside that house," said Crosetto, a 62-year-old accountant.

He said he began taking pictures to document injuries he saw.

Escalating situation

The situation got worse.

On Dec. 10, 2007, the lawsuit says, Crosetto called Gillen again because the "bruising and marks were beginning to escalate. She told Crosetto to call the police as it was her duty to try to protect the family and keep it together. Larry asked for an appointment to visit about her duty to protect the children."

On Dec. 12, 2007, Crosetto sought help from school officials. "Their position was that SRS had taken control of the situation and it was out of their hands," the lawsuit says.

On Sunday Dec. 23, the Crosettos' doctor noticed bruises on Brooklyn's face while she was at church, and he thought SRS should be notified. The doctor recommended that Larry Crosetto have another doctor examine Brooklyn the next day. On Dec. 24, the second doctor saw the girl, called police and sent a letter to the Coffeyville SRS office asking that "they investigate the situation and get back to him."

Gillen did not respond to the letter, the lawsuit says. But that same day the doctor called police, a Coffeyville police officer took a report from Crosetto in the doctor's office and said he would contact the prosecutor's office when it opened after the holiday, Crosetto said.

"I was under the understanding that the Police Department was trying ... to intervene, that the roadblock was SRS," Crosetto said.

The Crosettos believed Brooklyn was in danger.

"I was scared to death," Crosetto said.

The grandparents met with Gillen at her office on Dec. 28, and Larry Crosetto offered a CD showing Brooklyn's injuries. Gillen refused to accept it, saying it would be a police matter, the lawsuit said.

"The meeting became heated when it became apparent to the Crosettos that the defendant had some animus against them and was not going to do anything to protect the children. Mr. Crosetto made it clear that he was afraid she was not going to do anything until one of his grandchildren was killed."

And then the worst happened. On Jan. 17, 2008 — 20 days after the Crosettos expressed their fears to Gillen — Coffeyville police responded to a 911 call about Brooklyn. She was unresponsive, and she was in the care of Wells. Police saw head trauma and bruises.

Doctors found that Brooklyn's brain was bleeding as a result of her being struck on the head, and she had brain damage from being shaken, the lawsuit says.

The day after the 911 call, it says, police put three other children from the home of Wells and Randy Coons into protective custody because of "deplorable" living conditions and because of the fatal injuries to Brooklyn.

The lawsuit says that the Police Department didn't take more steps to protect Brooklyn and the other children before Jan. 18, 2008, "as it reasonably believed that the defendant was undertaking her statutory obligations to safeguard" the children.

The lawsuit argues that Gillen's "conduct increased the danger to (Brooklyn) from the meth addicted girlfriend."

Reach Tim Potter at 316-268-6684 or tpotter@wichitaeagle.com.

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