Slain girl's grandmother wants caseworkers deemed 'reckless'


COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The grandmother of a 2-year-old girl who was beaten and starved to death wants to file a wrongful death lawsuit against three caseworkers who oversaw the girl’s care, and has taken her case to the Ohio Supreme Court.

During oral arguments Wednesday, justices questioned the responsibility the state’s children’s service agency has for protecting children as its caseworkers investigate allegations of abuse.

The child prompting the case, Glenara Bates, weighed under 14 pounds — almost half the recommended weight for a 2-year-old girl–when she died in March 2015, and Hamilton County authorities said she was beaten by her parents, with visible belt and bite marks among other injuries.

Her father, Glen Bates, was sentenced to death the following year, but his conviction and sentence were later overturned after the state high court said a juror who made racially biased comments on a jury questionnaire should not have been seated in the trial of Bates, who is Black. A new trial is scheduled for January.

The girl’s mother was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.

After Glenara’s death, the girl’s maternal grandmother, Desena Bradley, sued three Hamilton County caseworkers, saying they missed obvious signs of abuse. Three weeks after caseworkers declared the girl “happy and healthy” during a March 2015 visit, she was dead, according to Desena Bradley’s complaint in the Ohio Supreme Court.

“According to the coroner, Glenara had been brutalized for months on end before her death,” Rachel Bloomekatz, an attorney representing the grandmother, said in a November court filing. “But somehow, Glenara’s bruises, scars, bite marks, whip marks, and gaunt, under-fed body completely eluded the caseworkers.”

State law provides case workers immunity from such lawsuits unless they were found to have acted “in a wanton or reckless manner.” Lower courts rejected the grandmother’s claims, saying she hadn’t provided enough evidence that the immunity should be lifted.

Desena Bradley appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court, which held oral arguments Wednesday. A decision isn’t expected for months. It’s unclear from court records whether Desena Bradley stepped in on behalf of her granddaughter when she was alive.

Hamilton County officials wants the high court to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing the girl was killed by her parents and not by county workers. There’s no evidence the caseworkers acted maliciously or in bad faith, county attorneys said.

“Instead, a 20/20 hindsight analysis is employed, which is based on mere speculation that these caseworkers were aware that Glenara was being physically abused and with improper intent failed to intervene,” Hamilton County assistant prosecutors argued in a December court filing.

If such lawsuits are successful, caseworkers in the future would protect themselves by downplaying parental rights and removing children from their homes every time an abuse allegation was investigated, Hamilton County officials argued.

On Wednesday, Justice Jennifer Brunner asked the attorney representing Hamilton County the extent of the agency’s responsibility.

Isn’t there a duty of any children service’s agency “to identify when a child is in danger? Isn’t that kind of a public duty?” Brunner said. “Isn’t that one of the reasons the agencies exist?”

Atty. Pamela Sears agreed with the justice, but also said Ohio law doesn’t extend that duty to an investigation of abuse as opposed to the agency having control of a child in the form of a foster home placement or emergency removal.

“Although there is a duty to investigate, I don’t think that the statute then parleys that into a general duty to protect during that investigation,” she said.

“So there’s a mandatory duty to report, but no duty to do anything about it?” Justice Michael Donnelly asked.

“This court has held that there’s no liability for failure to investigate,” Sears said.