YUCCA VALLEY — Five-year-old Noah Reed was admitted to Loma Linda University Medical Center five years ago with a severe head trauma that left him wheelchair-bound, unable to speak and requiring around-the-clock care. Now, a San Bernardino County jury has found the Department of Children and Family Services primarily at fault for the harm done to Noah and awarded $113.4 million to him and his mother, Laurell Reed.
Noah’s parents, Christopher and Laurell Reed, divorced in 2010. In 2013, Christopher started dating Hannah Thompson and the family moved to a home in San Bernardino County so that Christopher could take a job as an air traffic controller aboard the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center.
The family moved into a home on Palomar Avenue in Yucca Valley and brought in a roommate to help pay for rent and other expenses, said Laurell and Noah Reed’s attorney Steve Vartazarian. Christopher began working full-time aboard the combat center and Thompson was Noah’s primary caretaker.
“The roommate began to notice that the girlfriend was very abusive to Noah,” Vartazarian said in a phone interview with the Hi-Desert Star this week. “She would not feed him properly, she would hit him with a drumstick. He was 4 years old at the time.”
The roommate reported the abuse and the Sheriff’s Department responded investigated. Deputies deemed the abuse allegations false.
Thompson took Reed to visit her mother and younger brother in Oregon and again was accused of beating Noah. Her mother called a child abuse hotline and reported that Thompson was abusing Reed.
When Thompson returned to Yucca Valley, she was contacted by sheriff’s investigators again; this time, they found the abuse allegations were true. They contacted the Department of Children and Family Services and social worker Karen Perry responded. Perry referred the family to various county services and closed the case.
Over the next few months, according to the lawsuit, Thompson continued to abuse Noah and in May 2014, she called 911 saying he had fallen off of a stool and hit his head. Doctors at Loma Linda were suspicious. Court records indicate the doctors found Noah was bruised and malnourished. Investigators said Thompson had either beaten or violently shaken Noah to the point where he was critically injured and his brain was swollen.
Thomspon and Christopher Reed were both arrested for child abuse.
According to court records, Thomspon was found guilty on two counts of willful cruelty to a child resulting in injury or death. She was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Christopher Reed pleaded guilty to misdemeanor child abuse and was sentenced to 90 days in jail, a one-year batterer intervention program and three years of probation. He completed the terms of his probation in June and his case was dismissed.
Mother says CFS didn't follow up
In October 2014, nearly six months after Noah was taken to Loma Linda, his mother filed a lawsuit against the county. Represented by Vartazarian Law Firm, she alleged that the county was negligent because Perry and the Department of Child and Family Services did not file a case study after determining that Noah was in danger while living with Hannah Thompson.
“She identified that the child was at risk. She identified that he was abused but she did nothing,” Vartazarian claimed. “When you refer a family to services, you’re supposed to open a case plan to monitor the family over the next six months.”
The county responded in its own court filings that opening a case plan was optional, not mandated for social workers. At the time, Perry testified that she was not informed that she was required to open a case file.
The court found that, regardless, the county had additional obligations under the regulations that were never addressed.
The trial was pushed forward and went before a jury last month.
According to court records, the jury found the Department of Children and Family Services 85 percent responsible for the harm done to Noah, Thompson 5 percent responsible and Christopher Reed 10 percent responsible. On July 3, Noah and Laurell Reed were awarded $100 million for past and future pain and suffering, $9.9 million for future medical expenses, $2.9 million for loss of future earnings and $602,625.66 for past medical expenses, according to the San Bernardino Sun.
The county still contends that CFS is not to blame for Noah’s injuries.
“It is understandable that a jury would be outraged when a child is harmed. The county is outraged, too,” San Bernardino County public information officer David Wert said in an email. “But in this case the jury’s outrage was misplaced.”
Wert said the county is considering its options in response to the jury’s decision. Appealing would be one of those options.
Noah’s condition: He cannot walk or talk
Now 10 years old, Noah lives in New York with his mother and grandparents. His life will be permanently affected by the injuries he suffered in 2014.
Noah has spastic quadriplegia, which can cause violent spasms in his body; one spasm even dislocated his right femur.
“He cannot walk. He cannot talk. He cannot see out of his right eye,” Vartazarian said. “He’s trying to learn to brush his teeth at 10 years old.”
Vartazarian said Noah’s injuries are the worst he has ever seen in a personal injury lawsuit. He also said he hoped the jury’s decision will help make real changes in the way CFS handles similar cases.
County faces other allegations
While Noah’s case may be one of the largest complaints about CFS the county has faced, in recent years several other families have found fault with the department.
A resident of Yucca Valley, Joy Resendez, said her family was in a similar situation last year when they alleged her granddaughter was being abused by the woman dating the girl’s father.
Joy’s daughter, Alicia Resendez, shared custody of her 1-year-old with her ex, who was in a romantic relationship with a woman named Brittany Asfahani, who was convicted in 2015 for willful cruelty to a child.
“Every time the baby came home from their house she was covered in bruises,” Resendez said. “My daughter took her into the CFS office and showed them the bruises and they did nothing.”
The Resendez family was never informed of Asfahani’s prior conviction, despite speaking to CFS. After the child was returned to the Resendez family after a three-day stay with her father in August 2018, they said, the injuries were more severe and the family immediately called 911.
“Officer Lopez came to the house and he was concerned,” Resendez said. “They called an ambulance.”
They traveled to the Loma Linda children’s hospital to look for signs of concussion or other signs of abuse and the incident launched an investigation into Asfahani, who was on probation for her previous conviction out of Rancho Cucamonga.
“She had to get staples in her head,” Resendez said. “And we contacted CFS but they still did nothing.”
After a lengthy investigation, Asfahani was arrested for a probation violation in January. According to court records, her probation was revoked and then amended in March and she lost custody of her own children.
Alicia Resendez gained full custody of her daughter and moved out of state.
“Thank God she got out of that situation before anything worse happened,” Resendez said. “Hearing about Noah now, I can’t even imagine what would have happened if my granddaughter had stayed in that household.”
Also in January, Ashly Parrish filled a lawsuit against the county in the name of her daughter, Autumn Shibley, who was killed by her father in 2017.
Autumn was living with her mother, Parrish, and her maternal grandmother, Joanna McCarthy, when she was removed from the home by CFS. In late 2016, Autumn was placed in custody of her father, Aaron Roman Freeman, 26, of Blythe.
According to Parrish’s lawsuit, Freeman had a history of violent behavior and his then-wife, Crystal Victoria, obtained a temporary restraining order against him. In 2012, he was charged with attacking a man and he pleaded guilty to battery, force inflicting injury on a person and disturbing the peace.
In June 2017, Autumn was rushed to the hospital, where she was pronounced dead. According to court records, an autopsy showed that she died from internal bleeding due to blunt-force trauma.
Freeman is currently facing a murder charge in Arizona for Autumn’s death.
Parrish’s suit seeks damages for the role she says the county played in Autumn’s death. Parrish and McCarthy both said they alerted Child Protective Services to the abuse several times and social workers did nothing. She also alleged that the CFS workers who originally removed Autumn from her mother’s care falsified records.
Last week, a judge dismissed the lawsuit’s allegations against two CFS workers who removed Autumn from the home, but allowed the allegations about the county’s role in Autumn’s death to stand.
The case will move forward in the U.S. Central District Court.