The question of whether the state child protection agency bears liability for the killing of an El Dorado toddler is back in play nearly four years after her death.
The Kansas Court of Appeals has reversed a lower-court judge’s decision in 2014 to dismiss a wrongful death lawsuit by Jayla Haag’s father against the Kansas Department for Children and Families. The father contends that the child protection agency knew of risks to Jayla and could have prevented her death.
The higher court disagreed with the lower court’s finding that the state definitely had no liability in her death.
The lawsuit alleged that DCF workers were negligent in their investigation of reports that the 18-month-old girl was being abused. Jayla arrived at an El Dorado hospital in March 2012 with bleeding on her brain, bruising and missing teeth that had been forcibly removed. She died eight days later. She had lived in what has been described as a meth house and had the illegal, highly addictive drug in her system.
In an opinion filed Dec. 23, the appeals court ruled that the lower court dismissed the lawsuit before the father had a chance to gain information from the DCF through what is known as discovery. The appeals court also said the issue of liability remains an open question.
In July 2014, Sedgwick County District Judge William Woolley dismissed the lawsuit, writing that “the court holds that Kansas law does not impose on child welfare agencies an independent duty” in the investigation of child abuse.
Before Woolley’s ruling, Assistant Attorney General Steve Fabert argued that the state had no liability and that the DCF, as a government agency, has immunity in such a lawsuit.
Randy Rathbun, the attorney who brought the lawsuit on behalf of Jayla’s father, Steven Watters, had said after the dismissal: “It is just not right that DCF can be aware that a child is in a meth house, is being abused, knows that the mother is using drugs, knows that the mother is refusing to do a drug test, knows that the child has unexplained bruising on her face and owes no duty to that child.”
In its Dec. 23 ruling, the appeals court said, “we cannot say with certainty that the Department owed no duty to Watters and his daughter. We likewise cannot say that the Department is definitely immune from liability. While it’s possible that additional facts gleaned from discovery won’t ultimately support Watters’ arguments, Watters’ petition has alleged sufficient facts at this point that he should be able to complete discovery.”
Although more probing into DCF records might “show nothing more than a regular child-abuse investigation pursuant to statutory responsibility … Watters has alleged enough facts in his petition that he should be allowed to find out,” the appeals court said.
It’s not clear whether the state will seek a review of the appeals court decision by the Kansas Supreme Court.
DCF spokeswoman Theresa Freed said in an e-mail statement Wednesday that the agency “respectfully disagrees with the Court’s ruling. As we demonstrated in information made public in 2014, DCF can only make an application with a County or District Attorney requesting a Child in Need of Care petition be filed. It is up to the County or District Attorney’s Office whether to file the petition, not DCF. DCF does not have the authority to remove a child from his/her home.”
Jayla’s paternal grandmother, Wendi Vittitow, said: “We are happy that it was reversed” by the appeals court. “I don’t know what the outcomes are going to be.”
Vittitow said she keeps reading about new cases in which children are dying from abuse and the DCF is involved. “I still think they (DCF) need to be held accountable for it. My son’s going to fight.”
They (DCF) just horribly fumbled the ball.
Randy Rathbun, attorney for Jayla’s father
Rathbun, the attorney representing Vittitow’s son, had argued at a June 2014 court hearing that the DCF “increased the risk” to Jayla. “They just horribly fumbled the ball.”
Rathbun had said that Jayla was born addicted to methamphetamine to a mother who had already had one child taken away, that the DCF knew Jayla’s mother was using drugs seven months into her pregnancy and did nothing and that there were anonymous complaints that the mother was using drugs.
Later, when Jayla was 9 months old, El Dorado police raided the apartment where she lived with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend. The boyfriend received a drug charge as a result, and the DCF knew about that, Rathbun said. When Jayla was 13 months old, the DCF and police found unexplained bruising on her face, and her mother refused to submit to a drug test when asked, he said.
The DCF had the authority to have police remove the child from her home but didn’t, Rathbun has said.
The Eagle has reported that the DCF said it tried to remove Jayla from her mother five months before she arrived at a hospital with the fatal injuries. On Oct. 17, 2011, the DCF had sought custody of Jayla by filing an affidavit with the Butler County Attorney’s Office. But a prosecutor determined the state lacked evidence, according to a timeline the DCF provided to The Eagle.
Alyssa Haag, Jayla’s mother, pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and was released from prison last year.
Justin Edwards, the boyfriend, pleaded no contest to aggravated battery, involuntary manslaughter and child abuse in Jayla’s death. He had originally been charged with first-degree murder before the plea agreement. Edwards, now 32, will remain in prison until at least 2023, records show.
Mother’s boyfriend will remain in prison until at least 2023.
After Jayla’s death, a “Justice for Jayla” movement arose. Partly through social media, it became an outlet for people to vent, pray and push for awareness and prevention of child abuse.