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Woman sues Clark County over granddaughter’s death

Updated June 28, 2017 - 11:46 pm

A woman sued Clark County for wrongful death Wednesday, claiming the 2016 killing of her 3-year-old granddaughter resulted in part from child welfare workers’ failure to properly investigate prior abuse complaints.

In her lawsuit, Bernadine Morimoto blasts the government bodies tasked with managing and overseeing child welfare services. She asserts that her granddaughters were abused by their father for months after social workers first received the case.

A spokesman for Clark County declined to comment on the pending litigation.

The father, 23-year-old Justin Bennett, is awaiting trial on charges of murder and child abuse. He is accused of torturing his 3- and 4-year old daughters for more than 18 months, until the younger child was killed from a blow to the chest so severe that it ruptured her right atrium.

Bennett also is accused of hitting and kicking his children, force-feeding them hot food, covering their mouths and plugging their noses — and, in one instance, slicing open a child’s unhealed head wound.

Warning signs

The civil complaint filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Las Vegas raises dark questions surrounding an already-tragic case. Did Child Protective Services repeatedly ignore warning signs that could have prevented months of abuse and saved the life of a young girl?

That’s what Morimoto claims, and she buttresses that assertion by highlighting several phone calls she made to caseworkers in the months prior to 3-year-old Abygaile Bennett’s death.

Clark County Child Protective Services first was alerted to potential abuse at the Bennett household in January 2016, when police who responded to a domestic violence incident “were shown visible injuries to the minor children and video footage of Defendant Bennett abusing them,” the federal lawsuit states.

Bennett did not lose custody of the girls after that incident. Instead, he and Morimoto’s daughter, Korie Morimoto, were ordered to take parenting classes. Korie Morimoto faces charges of allowing child abuse or neglect.

When the Clark County Department of Family Services received the case, each parent blamed the other’s disciplinary methods. The case was assigned to HopeLink, a local nonprofit that contracts with the county to provide child welfare services in low-priority cases. If physical abuse occurs, HopeLink is not authorized to remove the children from parental custody but must report the abuse to the county.

The HopeLink case manager, James Hardee, had training in investigating child abuse, according to the lawsuit.

Morimoto claims Hardee visited her residence in early January while the granddaughters were visiting. According to the lawsuit, the case manager “saw signs of physical abuse inflicted upon minor children … including bruising and marking on the children’s faces, head, stomach, and back.”

Meanwhile, repeated attempts by Hardee to visit the Bennetts while they were at home were unsuccessful, the lawsuit states. Morimoto says she phoned Hardee in March to tell him the three minor children were at risk of harm while in Bennett’s custody.

Closed case

Later that month, Hardee met with Clark County Family Services to discuss the case. According to the complaint, he expressed concerns for the children’s safety and relayed Morimoto’s request that the girls be transferred to county custody. But the county declined to take the case, choosing instead to leave it with HopeLink.

In the first three months of 2016, Bennett completed only one parenting class. HopeLink closed the case on April 5, 2016.

Abygaile was beaten to death on July 1, 2016. Filings in the civil and criminal cases indicate that her back and ribs were broken in the days or weeks leading up to her death. Details of the child abuse investigation that emerged after Bennett’s arrest include findings that he forced mustard into his daughters’ mouths when they lied and made them take cold showers as punishment.

Morimoto is seeking in excess of $175,000 in damages from a variety of defendants, including Hardee, Bennett, HopeLink and the girls’ paternal grandmother, Sherry Bennett. Her lawsuit also cites a 2009 review by the federal government that concluded the state of Nevada failed to meet national standards in assessing the safety of children who could be in danger of serious physical harm.

Contact Jenny Wilson at jenwilson@reviewjournal.com or 702-384-8710. Follow @jennydwilson on Twitter.

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