Family Files Claim for Damages Against LA County Department of Children and Family Services

Oscar Ventura believes someone should have protected his young son from an abuser.

After his marriage ended, Ventura and his former wife had joint custody of Damien. A new boyfriend moved in with her. 

Last July, when Damien was just days from his third birthday, his mother had him taken to a hospital. He was in a coma and never recovered.

Months later, the mother's boyfriend, Josafat Bonifacio, was charged with Damien's murder, and now the boy's father has filed a legal claim, alleging county social workers failed to do their job.

Ventura said he suspected child abuse six months before his son's death, when the boy was brought to him with marks on his face and a bruise around his eye. 

"That's what got me to take him to a doctor," he said.

The father asked his son what happened, and recorded his response: "Joe slap me."

Damien recovered from that injury, but the hospital suspected child abuse and notified the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS).

Ventura played the recording of Damien for the social worker, but said she told him she though he had coached and influenced Damien's statement.

"She basically didn't believe me," Ventura said.

His attorney Brian Claypool said the social worker in this case ignored multiple reports of child abuse, from a baby sitter, a day care provider, and the mother of Damien's mother, in whose house she and Bonifacio were staying with Damien.

Records obtained by NBC4's I-Team last summer indicate police twice went to the house for abuse calls a year ago January, the month when the father said he recorded Damien talking about the slap.

The grandmother, who asked not to be identified, recalled going to the day care center in February and being told that Damien was agitated and kept repeating, "No Joe."

The grandmother said shen she asked him why, the boy replied, "he hits me." She said she told the case worker Damien would be safer with his father.

Claypool asserts DCFS failed Damien by not bringing in a forensic child psychologist to assess him and determine what was happening.

According to the grandmother, during the afternoon of July 3, Bonifacio was responsible for caring for Damien while his mother was at work.

Later Bonifacio brought Damien to her, saying the boy had fallen asleep, but when she could not awaken him she called 9-1-1, the grandmother said she learned from her. Bonifacio also spoke of Damien slipping in the bathtub, the grandmother said her daughter told her.

The coroner was not immediately able to determine cause of death, and half a year elapsed before the District Attorney brought charges against Bonifacio. He pleaded not guilty and now awaits a preliminary hearing to determine if there is enough evidence for trial.

Claypool said the circumstances of Damien's death raise questions about how much progress the DCFS has made since a Blue-Ribbon Commission recommended changes in the wake of the 2013 death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, months after abuse reports had been made.

His mother and boyfriend were both convicted of his murder. Since then, DCFS has also faced criticism for not doing more to protect Anthony Avalos, whose mother and boyfriend now face murder charges. 

In a statement Friday, DCFS spoke of its commitment to the challenge of protecting children, but declined to comment on the specifics of Damien's case.

"At any given time, the Department of Children and Family Services has more than 34,000 children in open cases served by approximately 4,500 social workers in the field," said Michelle Vega, a spokeswoman. "These are workers who care deeply about keeping children safe and are devastated by any tragedy that befalls a child that has touched the system.

"DCFS continues to evolve its practices and support its social workers to effectively engage vulnerable children and families. Child welfare is a shared community responsibility. Optimally this includes partners such as medical professionals, mental health professionals, school personnel, neighbors, clergy and others. Our agency will continue to strengthen those partnerships for the benefit of children and families in Los Angeles County."

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