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Lutheran Social Services ordered to pay $45M in lawsuit over toddler’s murder

Lavandis Hudson | Supplied photo

A social services agency hired by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services has been ordered to pay $45 million in a lawsuit over the 2011 murder of a 2-year-old boy whose care they were supervising.

On Tuesday, a jury ordered Lutheran Social Services of Illinois to pay the record-setting amount in damages after finding the agency was negligent in its duties when it returned Lavandis Hudson to his mother, according attorney Jay Paul Deratany, of the Deratany Firm.

The award will be paid to the boy’s estate, which includes his biological father and eight siblings, Deratany said.

In a statement, Lutheran Social Services said officials grieved the tragic circumstances surrounding his death.

“Serving Illinois since 1867, LSSI provides, among other services, foster care and family reunification programs designed to heal families, achieve permanency, and return children to family whenever possible — with children’s safety and well-being as our top concern,” the agency said.

A spokeswoman for Lutheran Social Services declined further comment on Thursday, but said they don’t plan to appeal the verdict.

Lutheran Social Services is currently responsible for 1,772 of the 16,785 children and youth in foster care in the state, DCFS spokesman Neil Skene said.

DCFS paid Lutheran Social Services about $30 million in fiscal year 2017, Skene said.

This is a very tragic case. It happened several years ago, and in the last two years we have been significantly changing our work with private agencies to focus not just on process compliance but real improvements in safety and wellbeing of children.

After his premature birth in 2009, Lavandis was found to have opiates and cocaine in his system, Deratany said. Lutheran Social Services was contracted by the state to provide oversight and the boy was put into foster care.

His mother, Marles Blackman, regained custody of the boy in September 2010 after completing court-ordered requirements, Deratany said.

The court reached that decision based on the assessment provided by Lutheran Social Services, despite a report that found her to be suicidal and homicidal, he said.

In June 2011, Blackman took the boy to MetroSouth Medical Center and said he had fallen off of his bed, Deratany said. Less than a month later, Blackman called 911 to report that the boy had suffered a seizure. An autopsy later found the boy died of multiple blunt force trauma.

Blackman was charged with murder in 2012, according to Cook County Court records. The case has not reached trial and her next court date is scheduled for Wednesday.

Deratany said the Cook County County Medical Examiner’s Office found that the boy had bruises across his body, some of which was weeks old.

“It’s hard to believe why they would put him back into the home,” Deratany said.

Deratany argued that the agency should have known it was not safe to allow the boy to be returned to his mother’s care and that it continually failed to follow state guidelines and regulations in their oversight of the boy’s case.

Records that the agency was supposed to keep were either lost or misplaced, Deratany said. Despite being required to make unscheduled visits to the home, the agency made zero.

“Lutheran Social Services knew that the mother had an extensive history of drug abuse and violence,” Deratany said in an earlier statement.

Her criminal history includes several battery and assault charges, including setting her brother — a double amputee — on fire at their grandmother’s home, according to Deratany.

“This is a very tragic case,” Skene said. “It happened several years ago, and in the last two years [DCFS has] been significantly changing our work with private agencies to focus not just on process compliance but real improvements in safety and wellbeing of children.”

The $45-million award is the largest in the state’s history in a case involving the death of a toddler, the firm said in the statement.

“I’ve never cried when a verdict came back, but the tears were running down my face,” Deratany told the Sun-Times.