A federal judge dismissed a civil case that the late Raylee Browning's mother brought against West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (WVDHHR) and a Child Protective Services (CPS) supervisor, after the 8-year-old girl died while under the care of CPS.
United States District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia Chief Judge Thomas Johnston ruled that WVDHHR, as a state agency, is protected under the legal doctrine of "sovereign immunity," which means that the government cannot be sued without the government's consent.
In the lawsuit filed in September 2020 by Fayette attorney Anthony Salvatore, Janice Wriston, the victim's mother, said that when Raylee died at Plateau Medical Center in Oak Hill in 2018 of cardiac arrest, her body showed multiple bruises and evidence of molestation. Wriston reported in the suit that she and mandatory reporters had made multiple referrals to CPS in an effort to keep Raylee safe but that CPS and WVDHHR failed to obey the standards of state law, set by the Child Welfare Act, and that the state's actions violated Raylee's Eighth Amendment rights by inflicting cruel and unusual punishment, after the father and two women are accused of beating, starving and torturing the girl, after the state ordered her to stay with them.
Raylee's father, Marty Browning Jr., 36, is scheduled to go to trial in Fayette County Circuit Court on criminal charges on Oct. 22, along with his wife, Julie Dawn Titchenell Browning, 38, and Julie's sister, Sherie Titchenell, 37, all accused of causing the child's death. Each defendant is charged with death of a child by a parent, guardian, or custodian and child neglect resulting in death, both felonies.
The civil suit named WVDHHR and CPS and Joe Sorrent, an individual, as defendants.
Johnston dismissed the suit against WVDHHR "with prejudice," meaning that Wriston may not sue the state agency for Raylee's death, but left the possibility that Sorrent could be sued later.
Sorrent was the supervisor at CPS when Raylee died in Oak Hill on Dec. 26, 2018, and when Nicholas County educators reported to CPS that she was being abused in Nicholas.
WVDHHR spokeswoman Allison Adler reported on Tuesday that Sorrent retired on Dec. 29, 2018. He is currently employed by WVDHHR as a temporary CPS worker, Adler added.
State law generally protects individual CPS workers from being held personally liable when a child or family is harmed. In 2018, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals ruled that CPS workers are liable for damages only when they are plainly incompetent or knowingly violate the law.
They are not liable for carelessness or negligence in the course of performing their duties, the court ruled.
In court filings for Wriston's lawsuit, WVDHHR agents stated, through attorneys, that they did not know if Raylee had been abused and also denied that the child died of abuse, as a result of CPS failing to protect her under the Child Welfare Act.
Oak Hill Police Department Chief Mike Whisman and another Fayette official in 2019 had reported that WVDHHR had initially failed to provide CPS records to police and had then provided only partial records. In her suit, Wriston accused CPS of falsifying and destroying records after her daughter died.
WVDHHR denied in the civil suit that CPS workers had hidden and falsified records or that the agency had hampered the police investigation.
WVDHHR also denied that the Child Welfare Act gives the agency a responsibility to be aware of and to observe potential dangers to children, including Raylee.
WVDHHR admitted that mandatory reporters had told CPS that Raylee was being abused but denied the reports were in 2018.