A Palm Beach County jury on Friday found that the state Department of Children and Families should pay $5 million in the sexual assault of a 9-year-old boy by a slightly older foster child -- but collecting the money will be easier said than done.
The jury agreed that the 2003 sexual assault had done lasting damage to the victim, who is now 20 years old, and awarded $5 million to compensate for the suffering he has endured, the treatment he will require and the loss of his future earnings.
"He has severe depression and severe post-traumatic stress disorder," said attorney Howard Talenfeld, who represents the victim and his family.
But since the state's sovereign-immunity laws shield DCF from having to pay such a large award, Talenfeld is pushing for lawmakers to pass what is known as a "claims" bill. Under sovereign immunity, government agencies cannot be forced to pay more than $200,000 or $300,000 in damages, depending on the number of claims involved in an incident, unless the Legislature passes a bill to go above the limits.
"Claims bills are tough," he acknowledged. "But historically, with this department, where there are egregious facts and circumstances, we've seen several claims bills (succeed) in the last five or six years."
Talenfeld and his colleague, Stephan Le Clainche, argued in Palm Beach Circuit Court that DCF had placed the foster child with the victim's family in 2002, but had failed to warn them of his sexually aggressive nature.
The attorneys had sought a larger settlement -- nearly $16.7 million for the victim and $280,000 for his father -- than the jury awarded. The jury set the total amount of damages at $10 million, but said the victim's family was partly responsible for not giving up the foster child or signing a safety plan. As a result, DCF's share of the damages is $5 million.
Talenfeld said the significance of the verdict was that the jury held DCF responsible.
"So I am hopeful, given the fact that the Legislature right now is very sensitive to the failures of the department, that they'll look very carefully at another bad set of circumstances in a case where a young man's life was destroyed," he said
DCF did not respond to requests for comment.
Talenfeld, who is also the president of Florida's Children First, a nonprofit watchdog group, said the chain of assaults is anything but an isolated case.
"The data, when Florida has chosen to record it, has been horrific," he said. "The problem has been systemic. And lives are destroyed when kids are sexually abused by kids in (foster) care."
According to Talenfeld, the perpetrator was 10 years old when he sexually assaulted his 2 1/2-year-old sister and then, in his second foster placement, became the victim of a 17-year-old boy. Talenfeld also said the perpetrator, who is now 21 and behind bars on unrelated charges, had sexually attacked several children in the victim's home.