The father of Eli Hart, a 6-year-old boy whose body was found stuffed in the trunk of his mother's car in May, has sued Dakota County and three of its employees for allegedly ignoring warning signs that Eli's mother was mentally ill and unfit to care for him.

Though two Dakota County social workers and a court-appointed guardian repeatedly raised concerns about Hart's mother in their reports to the court, they still recommended that she be granted full custody of the child this spring, court records show.

Eli was killed just 10 days after his mother, Julissa Thaler, was awarded custody by Dakota County Judge Tim Wermager. Orono police discovered the boy's body after his mother was pulled over for a traffic stop in Mound.

"Had due care and reasonable decisionmaking been employed here, Eli would not have been returned to his mother and she would not have had an opportunity to kill him," said Minneapolis attorney Joshua Tuchscherer, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Eli's father, Tory Hart.

Thaler, who was charged with second-degree murder for allegedly shooting Eli as many as nine times with a shotgun, remains in jail. She has not entered a plea.

Thaler's mental competency also has been raised in her criminal case. Earlier this month, Hennepin County Judge Jay Quam ordered that Thaler be examined to see if she is mentally competent and able to understand the charges against her.

"Constitutional protections really mean nothing if the accused is too ill to assist in the defense, which is why we have sought a Rule 20 competency evaluation in this case," said attorney Bryan Leary, a public defender assigned to represent Thaler.

Medical records reviewed by the Star Tribune show Thaler was in and out of psychiatric hospitals from the ages of 13 to 18. She repeatedly was treated for drug and alcohol abuse, and ran away from home in her last year of high school, living on the street for 45 days.

Thaler lost custody of Eli for most of last year after the Dakota County Social Services Department received a report in January 2021 that she was "presenting with psychosis and hearing voices telling her to kill herself," court records show.

It was the second time Thaler lost custody of her son. In October 2020, authorities temporarily placed Eli in foster care after social workers visited Thaler's home and found the boy naked with nothing to wear in the house but pajamas. Workers said the house was filthy and noted a "flooded upper floor bathroom" and "eggs broken and smeared throughout the main level."

Eli remained in foster care through December 2021, when a judge allowed Thaler to take him home on a trial basis.

Thaler received full custody of the boy on May 10, despite testimony from family members who told court officials they were afraid Thaler was a danger to Eli. At the time of Eli's death, his father was pursuing a separate case to win custody.

The wrongful death lawsuit focuses on the actions of guardian Sherri Larson and social workers Beth Dehner and Jennifer Streefland, who provided regular reports to the court on Thaler's behavior.

The lawsuit documents Thaler's repeated failures to abide by rules set down by the court and her monitors, such as failing to show up for mandated drug tests and engaging in inappropriate conduct with her son. Thaler left rotting food in her apartment, tested positive for methadone and exposed her son to "images of naked women," according to the lawsuit.

On one occasion described in the lawsuit, Thaler allegedly told her therapist how she left Eli on the side of a cliff in Colorado while she fetched a drinking cup. According to the lawsuit, Thaler "tied a rope onto herself, and climbed down the side of the cliff to retrieve a sippy cup that had blown away. Thaler left Eli unattended while she was climbing down the cliffside and did not answer the therapist when asked why she simply wouldn't have just bought a new one."

In the guardian's final report on May 4, Larson said she remained "very concerned about Ms. Thaler's mental health." Larson nevertheless recommended that custody of Eli be returned to Thaler, just a few weeks after she told the court that Thaler was not ready to resume her parenting duties, court records show.

Dehner and Streefland also recommended that Thaler be awarded full custody despite misgivings. In a May 4 monthly report to the court, Dehner and Streefland said Thaler had not attended weekly therapy sessions for months and "lacks insight into her own mental health and behavior."

Still, Dehner and Steefland said in the report, "There is no current indication that her son is physically unsafe in her care."

Attorney William Topka, who represents Dakota County and the other defendants, did not return calls seeking comment.

In response to the lawsuit, Dehner filed an answer last week denying the allegations against her. The other defendants have yet to file a response. In her answer, Dehner argued that she may be protected by "various immunity doctrines."

However, the Minnesota Supreme Court reinstated a wrongful death lawsuit against Pope County and three child protection workers late last year. A District Court had dismissed the case, saying the social workers were immune from liability in the screening and handling of suspected child abuse cases.

The state Supreme Court said immunity didn't apply to the social workers, and ordered the District Court to determine whether the county and social workers are liable for the death of a boy who died at the hands of his father's girlfriend after at least seven reports of suspected child abuse.