San Diego Fire Dragged Into Child Neglect Suit

The San Diego Fire Department is being sued by the guardian ad litem for the estate of an 11-year-old girl and her two sisters who claim the fire department, the police department, and a handful of others bear partial responsibility for neglect and abuse perpetrated by their adoptive parents. Steven Ratner filed suit in San Diego County Superior Court on behalf of the estate of Arabella McCormack and her younger sisters identified as A.M. and E.M.

The suit names the city, San Diego County, the San Diego Rock Church, the Pacific Coast Academy, and several named individuals including the adoptive parents of the girls, Leticia McCormack and the estate of her now deceased husband, Brian McCormack. The disturbing factual allegations are as follows:

  • On August 30, 2022, Sheriff deputies and paramedics responded to a 911 call at Leticia and Brian McCormack’s residence and discovered that the McCormacks’ three adopted girls, Arabella (11 yrs. old), A.M. (7 yrs. old), and E.M. (6 yrs. old), were severely malnourished, neglected, and abused.
  • When the medics arrived, Arabella had no pulse, was not breathing, was cold to the touch, and nonresponsive. She weighed just 40 pounds. Her bones were sticking out. Her eyes were sunken with dark circles. Her teeth were yellow and calcified. She had bruises, ulcerations, cuts, and scabs. The medics performed CPR and rushed her to the hospital. Doctors attempted to save her life, but her heart kept failing and she was pronounced dead at 12:28 pm. X-rays revealed that she had thirteen bone fractures. Arabella was starved, beaten, and abused to death.
  • A.M. and E.M. were also severely malnourished, neglected, and abused.
  • Doctors described them as ““near death.”” Their bones could be seen through their skin. They had no fat on their bodies. A.M.’s hands and feet were bright red and badly swollen. They both appeared younger than their ages due to underdevelopment. They suffered from refeeding syndrome (a phenomenon identified following World War II when prisoners of war were provided with food after a prolonged period of starvation and subsequently died from cardiac failure) and had to be nourished gradually. They were hospitalized and received treatment that saved their lives.
  • The Defendants in this case include not only the perpetrators of this horrific abuse – Leticia McCormack, Brian McCormack (sued through his estate), Adella Tom (Leticia’s mother), and Stanley Tom (Leticia’s father), but also the individuals and entities who interacted with the McCormacks and the girls in the weeks, months, and years leading up to Arabella’s death, and who owed mandatory duties to report the girls’ neglect to the proper authorities.
  • Leticia McCormack served as an ordained elder and ministry leadership coordinator with the Rock Church. During the course of her involvement with the church, the Rock Church (through its volunteers and employees) became aware of issues of child neglect and/or abuse relating to Ms. McCormack.
  • Leticia McCormack volunteered at the San Diego Police Department as a Crisis Interventionist. Her parents, Stanley and Adella Tom, also volunteered with the San Diego Police Department. During the course of her involvement with the police department, the department (through its employees) became aware of issues of child neglect and/or abuse relating to Ms. McCormack.
  • San Diego Fire Rescue Department employee and agent Chaplain Kevin Johnstone (concurrently employed by the Rock Church as a Child Abuse Investigator and Safety Operations Manager, as discussed above) visited with the McCormacks’ adopted girls on several occasions prior to Arabella’s death. In fact, Mr. Johnstone visited with all three girls just the week prior to Arabella’s death. Mr. Johnstone visited the girls in his fire department uniform and in the scope of his employment. When Mr. Johnstone visited, the girls were severely emaciated, underdeveloped, and the victims of prolonged starvation, isolation, lack of medical care, torture, and abuse. Their neglect was and should have been apparent to him. As a chaplain and commissioned minister employed by the fire department, Mr. Johnstone owed a duty to report the girls’ neglect and abuse under Penal Code section 11164, et seq.
  • San Diego Fire Rescue Department is vicariously liable for Mr. Johnstone’s failure to report. Mr. Johnstone’s failure within the scope of his employment is imputed to the fire department. The fire department also negligently failed to provide essential training to Mr. Johnstone regarding reporting child neglect and abuse.
  • Defendant City of San Diego Fire Rescue Department, acting through its employees, was a mandatory reporter of child neglect and abuse pursuant to Penal Code section 11164, et seq. The Fire Department’s failure to report child neglect and abuse relating to Plaintiffs, and its failure to provide appropriate mandatory reporter training to its employees, was a substantial factor in causing Plaintiffs’ harm, including Arabella’s death.

The complaint goes on to explain the involvement of the other defendants in the case. It alleges negligence, wrongful death, failure to report child neglect and abuse, civil rights violations under 42 USC § 1983. Here is a copy of the complaint:

Here is a copy of California Penal Code Section 11164 describing who has a mandatory duty to report, and the training requirements/recommendations.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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