SAN DIEGO - A father is suing the Chula Vista Elementary School District and the San Diego County Sheriff's Department after he claims they failed to protect his daughters from ongoing sexual abuse.
"Somebody dropped the ball," said the father, who asked that Team 10 hide his identity to protect his girls.
The civil lawsuit claims both agencies were negligent when they failed to report a child abuse allegation to Child Protective Services, allowing the fondling and inappropriate touching to continue for 18 months longer.
The father spoke only to Team 10 about the allegations, and he said in March 2012 his 9-year-old daughter told the principal of Sunnyside Elementary School that she was being sexually assaulted by an older half-brother. The father became emotional as he spoke about the principal's decision to call in a sheriff's deputy and the girl's mother. When the meeting was over, the girl was allowed to return to the home where the abuse was allegedly taking place.
"Nothing happened," said the father, who claimed that his daughter was pressured to change her story. "You just can't let it go in one ear and out the other and assume that a child misunderstood rape and wrestling."
The father, who is not married to the girl's mother, said it was during a visit with his daughters 18 months later when he first learned of the abuse allegations. His 15-year-old daughter was visiting him, and he said, "She stopped me dead in my tracks and started crying hysterically and told me she was being … that, uh, she was being molested by her brother."
He added, "I reacted like any father would react. I first got emotional, because I couldn't believe that this had actually happened to my daughter."
The father was angry and confused, and within minutes, the emotional pain was unbearable.
"It broke me. It was hard for me to process all of this because as quickly as I found out that it had happened to my oldest daughter, I found out just as fast that it had also happened to my youngest daughter," he told Team 10.
The father did what he said the school principal and the sheriff's deputy should have done more than a year earlier -- he contacted Child Protective Services.
"I was told there was never a report made in response to the school being notified and the school doing their investigation," he said.
Court documents show that within days of notifying CPS, both girls were removed from their mother's care and sole custody was given to their father.
The father claims neither the school nor the deputy followed California's Mandatory Reporting Law, and because they didn't, both his daughters continued to suffer.
"The abuse continued and it was worse," he added.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of his daughters, refers to them as Jane Doe and Jane Roe. It asks for damages "stemming from Defendants' negligence, assault, battery, and negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress."
"Because of this failure, these girls suffered immense emotional and sexual abuse," explained attorney Lorraine Nisbit, who is representing the two girls and their father.
Nisbit claims that since law enforcement officers and school officials are mandated by the state to report child abuse and neglect, they should be held accountable for not filling out a suspected child abuse report, required by penal code 11165.9.
A spokesman for the Chula Vista Elementary School District told Team 10 he can't comment on pending litigation, but in the district's court papers contesting the lawsuit, it claims the district fulfilled its reporting requirement by contacting the sheriff's department.
The legal response filed by San Diego County on behalf of the sheriff's department says its employees are "immune from liability" and that "in this circumstance, the Sheriff's Department was not the reporting party and did not have a reporting duty."
An attorney for the County of San Diego told Team 10 the deputy involved in this case is an experienced child abuse investigator who works closely with CPS. He said the deputy had no basis for any action, so there was nothing to report.
Team 10 obtained a copy of the Suspected Child Abuse Report form required by law. In small print at the bottom of the form, it says:
"The investigating agency is required under Penal Code section 11169 to submit to DOJ a Child Investigation Report Form SS 8583 if (1) an active investigation was conducted and (2) the incident was determined not to be unfounded."
Civil attorney Dan Gilleon, who is helping the father's attorney on this case, said the mandatory reporting law needs to be clarified to make sure all accusations of abuse and neglect are properly reported and investigated.
"I think that the law should probably be worded in a way that mandate that these reports go to CPS. In other words, I think the law should be that if you contact the Sheriff then send your report to CPS," Gilleon said.
Gilleon said it would create a better system of checks and balances.
Gilleon also questioned the principal's decision to have the girl's mother present when she was questioned by the deputy.
"When that principal called the mom, she actually called the person who the CPS eventually blames for all of this. She actually tipped off the wrong-doer herself."
Gilleon said the investigation was "bungled from the start."
The mandatory reporting law can be confusing. Below is the section that pertains to this case:
11165.9. Reports of suspected child abuse or neglect shall be made by mandated reporters, or in the case of reports pursuant to Section 11166.05, may be made, to any police department or sheriff's department, not including a school district police or security department, county probation department, if designated by the county to receive mandated reports, or the county welfare department. Any of those agencies shall accept a report of suspected child abuse or neglect whether offered by a mandated reporter or another person, or referred by another agency, even if the agency to whom the report is being made lacks subject matter or geographical jurisdiction to investigate the reported case, unless the agency can immediately electronically transfer the call to an agency with proper jurisdiction. When an agency takes a report about a case of suspected child abuse or neglect in which that agency lacks jurisdiction, the agency shall immediately refer the case by telephone, fax, or electronic transmission to an agency with proper jurisdiction. Agencies that are required to receive reports of suspected child abuse or neglect may not refuse to accept a report of suspected child abuse or neglect from a mandated reporter or another person unless otherwise authorized pursuant to this section, and shall maintain a record of all reports received.
The girls' father told Team 10 the law needs more teeth to protect children.
"There needs to be some sort of chain of command that needs to take place and people that specialize and deal with this on the daily, those are the ones that need to be notified," he told Team 10.
He said if that had happened in his daughters' case, they would have been spared 18 extra months of emotional and physical trauma.
The case returns to court in early September.
Ex-SD Unified administrator weighs in
A former administrator with the San Diego Unified School District told Team 10 she would have handled the molestation claim differently.
Brenda Campbell, who worked for the district for 40 years as a teacher, principal and area superintendent, said even if there were questions about the validity of the child's claim, CPS should have been notified.
"I've been trained to always report it to the CPS, the Child Protective Services, because they are the experts," said Campbell.
Campbell said she would not have called the child's mother unless a CPS caseworker instructed her to do so because it's in the best interests of the child. Without that expert advice, the former school administrator said she would be hesitant to bring anyone into the conversation who lived in the home where the alleged abuse was occurring.
Campbell was hesitant to speak directly about the Chula Vista case because she doesn't have all the facts, but raised the same question as the father about having the 9-year-old's mother present when the child was being interviewed.
The veteran educator also said every contact with a child who makes claims of abuse or neglect should be documented by sending reports to both the school district and Child Protective Services.
"Documentation is important because that helps with the investigation, to give more information so that the child can be protected," Campbell said.
Campbell said in her experience it's always better to be safe a than sorry in dealing with claims of this nature.
"I've had only very few cases over 40 years where the child was not telling the truth," she told Team 10.