Update: In an August 14, 2018 unpublished opinion, a three-judge panel of the Appellate Division reversed the trial court’s ruling regarding Harvest of Hope, holding that the organization was not exempted from liability under the Charitable Immunity Act.
On March 11, 2016, the New Jersey Department of Children and Families agreed to pay $1.25 million to the benefit of a child who alleged that he was subjected to “anal and oral penetration” in foster homes that the Department placed him in when he was less than three and half years old. On March 31, 2016, the boy, who was born in 1999, appealed the trial court’s 2015 decision to release the Department’s private referral agency from the lawsuit.
The boy, identified only by his initials, was a “boarder baby” (i.e. an infant abandoned to a hospital because the mother is unable to care for him or her) and claimed that the Department, which put him into foster homes when he was just a baby, “conducted either no background check at all, or an insufficient background check of” the homes into which he was placed. According to the transcript of a January 23, 2015 hearing before Essex County Superior Court Judge Michael J. Nelson, the boy was allegedly assaulted by “a paramour” of the foster parent “who visits or knows the foster parent.”
The boy’s lawsuit alleged that Harvest of Hope, a charitable organization formed by the Rev. Dr. DeForest B. Soaries, Jr., a former New Jersey Secretary of State, had a hand in locating the foster homes in which the alleged sexual abuse occurred. Judge Nelson dismissed Harvest of Hope from the lawsuit in 2015 after finding that it was protected by the Charitable Immunity Act. The boy is appealing Nelson’s ruling and is seeking to bring Harvest of Hope back into the case. He argues that the Act should not apply to Harvest of Hope because it was so heavily funded by the government that it effectively functioned as a government agency.
The case is captioned S.B.K. v. The State of New Jersey, et al, Essex County Superior Court Docket No. ESX-L-8102-11 and the boy’s attorney Craig J. Hubert of Szaferman Lakind, Lawrenceville. Also named in the lawsuit were Department Case Workers Diane Smith, M. Olmo, Germaine Curtis-Carter, Lisa Marie Finnegan, M. Baena, B. Blakely, Joe Gorman and H. Torres-Mejias. The lawsuit and settlement agreement are on-line here.
The court’s final order called for an up-front payment of $782,985.67 which was disbursed as follows: $298,009.49 to pay a Medicaid lien, $356,061.42 for the boy’s attorney fees, $88,414.76 for the boy’s attorney’s actual costs and expenses and the remaining $40,500 for other various costs and expenses. The remaining $467,014.33 will pay for an annuity from which the boy will receive “$1,637.59 per month, for life, guaranteed for 40 years.”
None of the boy’s allegations have been proven or disproven in court. Settlement agreements typically state that payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by any of the defendants. All that is known for sure is that the State of New Jersey for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay the boy $1.25 million than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants’ decision to settle was done to save further legal expense and the costs of trying what were in fact exaggerated or meritless claims. Or, perhaps the claims were true and the defendants wanted to avoid being embarrassed at trial. This is the problem when cases settle before trial–it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.