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Girls’ families file wrongful-death lawsuits against DCFS

Gizzell Ford (center) her younger sister Jay'dah Outlaw (left).  |  Family photo

Gizzell Ford (center) and her younger sister Jay'dah Outlaw (left). | Family photo

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Updated: August 16, 2014 6:14AM

The families of two deceased girls have filed wrongful-death lawsuits against the state’s child-welfare agency alleging officials missed obvious warning signs that the children had been placed with other relatives in abusive households.

The mother and maternal grandfather of 8-year-old Gizzell Ford — whom prosecutors say had been tortured in a garbage-strewn home on Chicago’s West Side before she died in July 2013 — sued the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services in Cook County Circuit Court late Friday. The paternal grandfather of 3-year-old Gina Presley, found dead in her aunt’s house in Oak Forest in March 2013, sued DCFS in federal court on April 30.

Gina’s case was profiled in a series of Chicago Sun-Times/WBEZ reports last year that found that the number of children dying while being investigated or monitored by DCFS had been on the rise.

Gina’s paternal grandfather, James Fountas, says in court filings that the girl’s maternal grandfather reached out to DCFS and the Oak Forest Police Department several times about Gina being abused by her legal guardian’s live-in boyfriend, Jessie B. Rodriguez. Despite this, DCFS “took no meaningful steps to prevent further harm” to Gina, Fountas alleges.

Gina died of “blunt force trauma due to child abuse,” authorities concluded. Rodriguez has been charged with murder and is awaiting trial.

Fountas’ case against the Oak Forest Police Department, which denies wrongdoing, is pending. But lawyers for DCFS argued they can’t be sued in federal court because the state has “sovereign immunity,” so Fountas’ lawyers dropped their suit against DCFS last month so they can sue the agency in the Illinois Court of Claims, said Angela Kurtz, one of Fountas’ lawyers.

Gizzell’s mother, Sandra Mercado, and maternal grandfather, Juan Mercado, claim a child-welfare caseworker visited the Austin home where the straight-A student had been living with her father, Andre Ford, and paternal grandmother, Helen Ford, weeks before she died, according to their lawsuit. Three weeks before she died, a child-abuse pediatrician identified what “looked like a healing loop mark” over Gizzell’s buttocks but didn’t report the mark and findings, which were available to DCFS officials, the lawsuit also claims.

“How the very people who are supposed to protect children could visit that home, find obvious signs of abuse and leave my granddaughter to suffer and die, I’ll never know,” said Juan Mercado in a statement released Monday by his lawyer, Martin Dolan. “We want justice for Gizzy and for all our children by making sure something as horrific as this never happens again.”

A DCFS spokesman said the agency cannot comment on pending litigation. Both Andre Ford and Helen Ford have been charged with murder.


Twitter: @FuscoChris

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