Jury awards $16.6M for state child and family division not protecting infant

2009 abuse case caused life-long problems for infant who will never be able to live independently

By: - November 23, 2021 8:35 pm

Cascade County Courthouse in Great Falls Montana in 2020 (Photo via Wikimedia Commons | CC-BY-SA 4.0)

A jury has awarded a 13-year-old girl and her caretaker $16.6 million after attorneys proved that a social worker with the State of Montana’s Child and Family Services division failed to take appropriate precautions to safeguard the victim as an infant, and the subsequent child abuse left her with permanent, debilitating medical conditions and likely a much reduced life expectancy.

The case stems from a February 2009 incident in Great Falls when she was a toddler, in which she was found by her father, apparently unconscious and unresponsive. She was later determined to be blind and suffering from severe traumatic brain injuries that have left her unable to care for herself and needing a permanent feeding tube.

But before that incident, two pediatricians and a detective had recorded abnormal bruising on her body, which doctors determined was caused by trauma, likely abuse. Despite having gotten the reports, photographing the evidence and having the clinical assessment of two different, independent pediatricians, a social worker with the State of Montana didn’t fill complete paperwork, didn’t follow up on several other reports, and didn’t remove the child from the home, which later led to her life-changing injuries.

A court later convicted Alicia Hocter, the live-in girlfriend of the victim’s father, for the assault. Hocter was sentenced to as many as 30 years in prison for abusing the girl and is still at Montana State Women’s Prison for aggravated assault and criminal endangerment.

Alicia Jo Hocter (Photo via Montana Department of Corrections).

Cascade County District Judge Elizabeth Best found for the victim and against the state of Montana in a summary judgment, concluding that the department “had a statutory duty and failed to fulfill it… This failure was a cause of (the victim’s) injuries and harms.”

A jury awarded the victim and the caregiver $16.6 million, an amount that will likely go to support the victim for the rest of her life because she’s unable to live independently and needs nearly constant support.

Attorneys Ben and Raph Graybill, along with Larry Anderson, have been pursuing the case for nearly 12 years.

“The jury had to sit through and listen to what happened,” said Ben Graybill. “It’s not so easy to hear and they understand what her life would have been, and I appreciate what the jury did.”

“What happened to her is never going to get easier,” added Raph Graybill. “It’s a systemic failure.”

It is expected that the DPHHS will appeal the ruling to the Montana Supreme Court, the plaintiff’s attorneys said. However, the department released a statement on the case to the Daily Montanan:

“While the correctness of the court’s decision remains in dispute, the unspeakable nature of this crime is not,” said DPHHS Director Adam Meier. “Our hearts go out to the victim of this terrible crime, and the state is safer with the perpetrator incarcerated. This tragedy serves as a reminder of what our agency, our partners, and in particular, our child welfare professionals do each and every day to protect children.”

Missed warnings

The court file details several reports of potential problems after the victim was evaluated for bruises on her abdomen after Christmas 2008, including two independent pediatricians who concluded the bruising was consistent with child abuse.

Just a little more than a week later, another anonymous report to child services complained of a baby crying that could be heard from outside the apartment where Hocter and the victim’s father lived. There was also a strong odor of marijuana, according to the court documents. However, the court determined that no investigation was ever made.

On Jan. 18, 2009, less than two weeks after that report, nurses at Benefis Hospital in Great Falls filed multiple reports with the department when the father and Hocter left the victim alone at the apartment while Hocter was giving birth to their child. At the time, the victim was less than a year old, and the department again failed to investigate, according to court documents.

Then, one month later on Feb. 18, 2009, Hocter assaulted the victim, leading to the life-changing injuries.

At the time, the victim’s mother was fighting for custody of her daughter, engaged in a protracted legal dispute about parental rights and custody. Since the incident, the victim’s father has relinquished his rights as a parent.

“If the state doesn’t know who caused the abuse, then it has to remove the child for its safety,” said Ben Graybill, who was part of the legal team trying the case.

The social worker who was assigned to the case is no longer employed by the State of Montana, Graybill said.

“There were enormous deficits that were outlined at the trial and that’s why the jury did what it did,” Graybill said. “This will get the child in position so that she can be properly cared for, for the rest of her life.”

Even though more than a decade has passed since the original incident, the court’s decision and the jury award still has a significant impact moving forward, said Ben Graybill.

“CFSD tries very hard and social workers have a very hard job,” he said. “This is the kind of verdict that gets a lot of attention. It’s what happens when CFSD gets it wrong. It didn’t have to occur, and the who system needs to recognize what the consequences can be.”

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.