The Department of Job and Family Services is accused of ignoring evidence of the "bizarre and disgusting" behavior of a foster parent when it placed a girl, whom he later killed, into his custody.
Attorneys representing Connre Dixon, an 11-year-old girl killed in 2004 at her Monroeville foster home, in a wrongful death lawsuit against the Huron County Department of Job & Family Services (HCDJFS) and the county commissioners presented their opening statements and first witnesses Tuesday.
Willard attorney Jim Martin, who represents Dixon's estate, accused HCDJFS of having policies that essentially "fostered" the girl's Oct. 18, 2004 stabbing death at the hands of her foster father, Paul Efaw. He is serving a three-year prison term for one count of voluntary manslaughter, a first-degree felony, but Martin dismissed him as a defendant in the case without explanation before his opening statement.
"He viciously stabbed her to death," Martin told the jury. He said the Monroeville man had a "long history" with the agency, including 1988 allegations of physical and sexual abuse of his biological children, but HCDJFS approved Efaw to be a foster parent.
The attorney contended Efaw exhibited "bizarre and disgusting behavior," such as defecating in his stepdaughter's face for punishment. Martin quoted notes from a Wyandot County social worker, which HCDJFS had in its possession before Dixon was placed, that said Efaw "made kids kiss his feet just out of meanness."
"(HCDJFS) ignored that evidence," Martin said, at one point calling it deplorable and saying the agency ignored countless warning signs. "Policies and procedures where are they?"
HCDJFS defense attorney Jim Jeffery, during jury selection, said jurors in the civil case need to set aside their prejudices and consider the evidence on its own.
"What you heard before about the department is not relevant. What you hear on the stand is relevant," Jeffery said.
Joan Szuberla, the primary HCDJFS attorney, said in her opening statement that foster care coordinator Suzie Sidell and the agency "did more than what was required" after Efaw and his second wife applied to be foster parents.
She told jurors Sidell conducted a six-month investigation, completed a 30-page home study, spent six to eight hours interviewing the Efaws and was in their Monroeville home multiple times.
"This is not an example of an agency not doing its job. This is not an example of an agency violating this child's civil rights," Szuberla said.
HCDJFS, with about 100 employees and an overall budget of about $13 million, places 80 to 100 children in foster homes each year. Director Erich Dumbeck, Martin's first witness, testified that foster parents receive between $15 and $30 a day, or about $900 each month.
"And you don't hear about the success stories," Szuberla said, because their stories "don't sell newspapers."
Dumbeck testified that HCDJFS doesn't require the following: checking potential foster parents' criminal records, an interview with their employers, checking court dockets for civil cases, requiring law enforcement agencies to check for incidents of applicants' previous "bizarre behavior" or interviewing victims of suspected abuse by the applicants.
He agreed with Martin that those would be good ideas and are up to the discretion of the social worker.
Dumbeck said "a recent felonious record," such as manslaughter charges, would automatically disqualify someone from being a foster parent. The director didn't know if HCDJFS needed to check its own records on applicants, but said the agency does look for criminal convictions as part of a background check.
Sidell, Martin's second witness, said the 1988 allegations of sexual abuse by Efaw were determined to be unsubstantiated, but HCDJFS records confirmed allegations of physical abuse. She testified that interviews with Efaw's biological children, who were adults when being questioned, "brought up no red flags (during) a messy divorce" with his first wife.
"I wasn't doing an investigation. I was doing an assessment," she explained to Martin. "I left the questions open-ended, hoping they'd elaborate."