YOUNGSTOWN - A caseworker for Mahoning County Children Services who falsely reported that a child she was supposed to visit was fine but was already dead can not claim immunity from a civil suit.
The 7th District Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that caseworker Kim Vechiarelli can not be granted immunity in a civil suit brought by the estate of Jimmy Higham for his death.
The court also overturned a trial court's decision denying immunity to CSB Director Denise Stewart and caseworker Erin Davis.
Higham, who was 16, was drowned and then cut up by David Sharpe sometime in June 2001 and the body parts were thrown into a landfill. Police did not learn of his death until Sharpe's girlfriend, Jennifer Snyder, confessed that Sharpe had killed the teen.
Snyder and Sharpe are serving prison sentences for Higham's death. Higham's estate sued in 2009, alleging improper screening and placement and monitoring, negligence, falsification of reports, negligent hiring and supervision and wrongful death.
Higham was sent to live with his father, then a family friend temporarily in 2000, but his father refused to take custody of the teen and he then lived with Snyder, who was a friend of one of the father's ex-wives. Juvenile Court awarded custody of Higham to Snyder in October 2000, as Davis handled the case for CSB then. Background checks noted both Sharpe and Snyder had criminal backgrounds.
A relative also called CSB and complained that Higham was being abused. On June 18, 2001, CSB received a complaint that Sharpe had been arrested for abusing Snyder four days before and that Sharpe was abusing Higham, which was when Vechiarelli was assigned to the case.
On Nov. 2, 2011, Common Pleas Judge Lou D'Apolito denied requests by Davis, Vechiarelli and Stewart for immunity as political subdivision employees.
However, the appeals court ruled that Stewart should be granted immunity because there is no evidence that she acted recklessly or in bad faith and that Davis did not knowingly place Higham at harm.
The opinion states that Vechiarelli was assigned to interview Sharpe and Snyder after police think Higham was killed, and she tried to contact the couple, but they had moved.
Instead, Vechiarelli falsely reported that she had met with all three, and that everything was fine, and she closed the case. She also at first told Youngstown detectives in 2007 that she had interviewed the three but changed her story when confronted with evidence that Higham was already dead when she received the case, and that she had also shredded all her notes when she changed positions at the agency.
A spokeswoman for CSB said Thursday Vechiarelli no longer works for the agency.
In her appeal, the appeals court noted Vechiarelli did not dispute any questions of recklessness on her part but instead focused on the fact that her conduct could not have caused harm to Higham because he was already dead and that the estate does not have standing.
The appeals court said issues of date or death or standing do not address the question of why Vechiarelli should be granted immunity, which is why the appeals court refused to overturn D'Apolito's decision on her immunity.
Court records show the case was stayed last December pending appeals court action.