Ignoring repeated warning signs, two Minnesota social workers failed to protect 18-month-old Layla Mary Ann Jackson from a foster family that physically abused, mocked and ultimately murdered the infant girl, according to a new lawsuit.
Layla, a Black and Native American girl, died on Aug. 28, 2018, after suffering blunt force trauma to her head and neck. Her foster father, Jason Betlach, 33, pleaded guilty to murder last year, admitting he shook her violently to make her stop crying. He is serving a 30-year sentence in Rush City correctional facility.
But a trustee for Jackson's next of kin says Betlach isn't the only one responsible for the young girl's death. The lawsuit, filed last week in Minnesota U.S. District Court, says Layla is the latest casualty of Hennepin County's broken child welfare system. The suit names Hennepin and Scott counties for negligence, and Hennepin specifically for violations related to deprivation of rights.
It also names two social workers — Bree Meduna, of Hennepin County, and Julie Malecha, of Scott County — along with Jessica Betlach, Jason's wife, for not intervening and stopping the abuse.
"Layla Jackson's death follows in the footsteps of the equally horrific deaths of Kendrea Johnson and Arianna Hunziker, all foster children to whom Hennepin County owed duties of protection," said Jeff Storms and Jeff Montpetit, the attorneys representing the trustee, in a statement. "Sadly, we expect that Hennepin County will once again reject accountability as it did by forcing the families to endure prolonged litigation in the Johnson and Hunziker cases." The Hennepin County Attorney's Office declined to comment on pending litigation. Scott County did not return a request for comment.
According to the lawsuit:
Layla and her brother were placed in the Betlaches' home in April 2018. Over his period as her caretaker, Jason Betlach, who is white, referred to Layla as a "Mongoloid" and other racist and abusive terms. He recorded a video shouting "white power" at her, mocked her medical needs and status as a foster child and wrote "loser" on her forehead.
Jason Betlach lied in paperwork, saying he had no criminal history, despite convictions for possession of drugs and paraphernalia, theft, DWI and a citation for not using a car seat with a child under the age of 8. No one from the foster system ran a background check on him.
The Betlaches were able to take Layla in because she was a relative to Jessica Betlach, with the understanding they would complete licensure. But the family was "hostile" toward training and the licensure process, and took no steps to do so, which the social workers knew, the complaint said.
At her only home visit, Malecha "noted a lack of smoke detectors properly installed and working on every level of the home and that weapons and ammunition were stored together and not locked in areas that are not accessible or visible to children." She made Meduna aware, but neither spoke to Jason Betlach about it.
Jessica Betlach knew her husband was abusing Layla. The abuse appeared to be psychologically damaging the young girl and stunting her growth. But she did not stop him. The social workers also didn't intervene, even when Layla's biological mother and Jessica Betlach told them Layla wasn't safe, according to the complaint.
By late August, the Betlaches were canceling necessary appointments with the social workers, and Meduna recognized that the Betlaches were unfit foster parents, which she conveyed to Malecha. Yet both failed to act, according to the suit. On Aug. 28, 2018, Layla was left alone with Jason Betlach and his biological daughter.
Layla was hospitalized that day. She'd suffered head and neck injuries so severe that she sustained cardiac arrest and a brain injury. She died two days later. The lawsuit alleges the social workers and counties acted negligently and failed in their duties to ensure Layla's safety and welfare. "Meduna and Malecha had reason to know [Layla] was suffering from these constitutional violations. They had a realistic opportunity to intervene to stop these constitutional violations, but either maliciously or with reckless disregard for whether [Layla's] rights would be violated, failed to intervene."
Andy Mannix • 612-673-4036