CLEVELAND — A wrongful death lawsuit was filed Wednesday morning by Mickhal Garrett, the father of slain 4-year-old Aniya Day-Garrett, against a litany of people, including county social workers and private daycare employees, that he believes could have prevented his daughter’s murder in 2018.
In a combined filing, Garrett’s attorneys also submitted a petition for discovery in order to have the court compel the county to release records from Aniya’s case file at the Division of Children and Family Services. Despite being Aniya’s biological father, Garrett has been unable to gain access to those records.
“Unfortunately when [the abuse] was reported, even when police reported, when Mickhal Garrett reported, Sierra Day’s own sister reported, DCFS didn’t do anything," said Hannah Klang, Michael Garrett’s attorney. "They kept her in that home with Sierra Day when she was lying in her death bed. It’s terrible; the details of Aniya’s death are horrific. It is so important that we get the complete story though because we don’t have it. We have bits and pieces of what DCFS did and what the daycares did but we don’t have the full story. That’s the goal of the lawsuit."
The 55-page wrongful death lawsuit and petition for discovery alleges county social workers and private daycare owners and employees seemingly failed Aniya at every turn. Leaning on a previously released state Child Fatality Review conducted by the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, the wrongful death lawsuit alleges county social workers and their supervisors failed to even conduct basic tasks associated with the child welfare system, including conducting adequate interviews, case assessments and follow up reviews.
The lawsuit claims county social workers misclassified reports of suspected abuse; failed to perform comprehensive safety risk assessments; failed to notify Aniya’s father of the alleged abuse; ignored a documented history of physical abuse; ignored Aniya’s own complaints that “mommy hit [her]”; failed to conduct appropriate interviews with third parties; failed to investigate signs of physical abuse and trauma; incorrectly closed cases of reported and substantiated physical abuse without a proper or thorough assessment and failed to remove Aniya from a violent and dangerous environment.
The county social workers named in the lawsuit also allegedly failed to follow department policy and applicable state statute.
The county has recommended that two of the social workers named in the lawsuit, Lorra Green and Laura Cole, be fired.
“While they may not have dealt that final blow to Aniya that ultimately resulted in her death, they could have prevented it. It was their job to prevent it,” Klang said.
The wrongful death lawsuit also targets Aniya’s former daycares, Harbor Crest Childcare Academy and Get Ready Set Grow Childcare Center, both in Euclid. Both daycares have since closed amid the state’s efforts to have their licenses revoked.
Both facilities were accused by state regulators of failing to report suspected abuse, as is required by the state’s mandatory reporting laws. However, the lawsuit also contends that the Division of Children and Family Services also failed to notify the state that it was suspected that the daycares had failed to follow state law.
Under state law, county social workers are required to notify the Department of Job and Family Services that a daycare provider isn’t complying by mandatory reporting laws.
“Aniya said on several occasions, ‘mommy hits me. Mommy tells me to lie about mommy hitting me.’ They didn’t report it. Harbor Crest daycare had 14 separate reports of Aniya coming to the daycare with bruises and hand prints, saying that mommy hit her,” Klang said. “They didn’t report anything until the 14th report and even then it was several days after.”
The girl’s mother, Sierra Day, and her mother’s boyfriend, Deonte Lewis, were convicted of aggravated murder earlier this year. Their week-long trial included graphic and emotional testimony and evidence that showed the 4-year-old girl was severely abused and neglected before she died of a blunt force trauma-induced stroke.
Evidence showed Aniya had bruises and abrasions canvassing her body that were in different stages of healing. She also was forced to lay in her urine-soaked bed for hours on end.
“As a result of the systemic and institutional failures of [the defendants], on March 11, 2018, the physical abuse and neglect of Aniya became so pervasive, severe, and unchecked, Aniya ultimately succumbed to the physical injuries inflicted upon her,” the lawsuit states.
At the time of her death, medical examiners said Aniya weighed a mere 29 pounds.
Court records list the defendants as Cuyahoga County, County Executive Armond Budish, agents of Cuyahoga County Division of Children and Family Services, Aniya's daycares and her killers, Sierra Day and Deonte Lewis.
In Ohio, county agencies like DCFS have immunity from civil litigation. Garrett's attorneys have instead filed suit against the specific parties involved from those agencies.
"Because of immunity issues against the county we have a petition for discovery against the county," Klang said. "We then have an actual complaint against the individual employees as well as the daycares. Even if [county employees] acted recklessly we cannot sue the county directly, unfortunately. It’s sad.”
The lawsuit seeks punitive and compensatory damages.
Additionally, Garrett has petitioned the court to compel Cuyahoga County DCFS to release Aniya’s records — records that detail her abuse and were never released to him. County officials have previously stated that under state law those records are exempt from public disclosure.
"There are a lot of lingering questions," Klang said. "That criminal trial only told a small portion of the story of what happened to Aniya."
Two days before her death, medical examiners testified that Aniya was punched in her eye, causing severe injuries. Eventually, Aniya’s body gave out from the repeated abuse.
In the months following Aniya’s death – and amid the community uproar about her case – the county said it would implement reform at DCFS, including assigning former law enforcement officers to help with investigations, hiring additional staff, as well as assembling a community review board. It is unclear how many of the recommended changes have, in fact, been implemented.
"Changes needed to be made," Klang said. "I think they’ve acknowledged that changes need to be made. If they are not willing to be transparent about what actually happened [to Aniya] there’s no way for us to judge those."
A county spokeswoman stated the county had not yet been served with the lawsuit and could not comment.
Garrett is also represented by Paul Grieco. Both he and Klang are attorneys at Landskroner Grieco and Merriman LLC.
Read the complete lawsuit below: