Roger Booth never intended to become a leading crusader in a growing effort to ensure Riverside County protects children from abuse, neglect and even death.
The Torrance attorney, who steered his family law firm toward representation of children born into severely dysfunctional families, said it started by “happenstance.”
In 2010, a mother contacted the Law Offices of Booth and Koskoff after her child was sexually abused in the foster care system. Booth took the case, ultimately filing against a private foster care agency and both Riverside and San Bernardino counties. The child was awarded a $4 million settlement.
After that, he said, more and more juvenile cases started coming his way. Those cases now make up about half the work his firm does.
“They’re difficult cases,” Booth said. “The basic challenge is that a lot of what social workers do is considered to be discretionary. They have to make decisions about whether or not to keep families together. There’s a gray area, we recognize that and the law recognizes that.”
They’re also difficult cases, he said, because the firm only gets paid if it prevails against the county — which Booth has done repeatedly. A judge approves what fees will be paid to the legal team, but Booth said it is typically between 25% and 40%.
Since 2009, Booth has filed six suits against the Children’s Services Division of Riverside County’s Department of Public Social Services and won nearly $14 million for abused and neglected children.
Now, he’s preparing for what may be his most high-profile case yet.
After 8-year-old Noah McIntosh of Corona vanished this year, Riverside County officials acknowledged they had reports going back 18 months that the boy was being neglected and abused.
Bryce Daniel McIntosh, 33, was arrested on March 13 and within weeks was charged with first-degree murder in his son’s death.
Detectives say Bryce McIntosh purchased long-cuffed gloves, bolt cutters, four gallons of muriatic acid, a 32-gallon trash can, and several bottles of drain opener days after the boy was last seen alive.
Noah’s mother, Jillian Godfrey, 37, was also arrested and charged with child endangerment.
They each have pleaded not guilty.
Booth and his legal team filed a claim against the county in October, seeking damages on behalf of Noah McIntosh — whose remains have yet to be found — and on behalf of a relative of Noah’s, a juvenile who is in protective custody. In the claim, which is a necessary first step before a lawsuit, Booth names five staff members of the Children’s Services Division.
What county social workers and other authorities knew and when, as well as what they did with that information — or failed to do — is at the heart of the case he’s developing against the county.
According to Booth’s claim, the record of abuse goes back even further than 18 months and to another county where the McIntosh family previously lived. Booth contends Noah was being mistreated in Orange County as early as 2013 — six years before his death — and that Riverside County had a record of it.
“I’m seeing a failure to take action, a failure to be proactive when it’s obvious that kids are in real danger,” Booth said. “We’ve seen a number of cases where they have essentially done nothing.”
Brooke Federico, a spokeswoman for Riverside County, said the county received the claim but that it had not yet been formally reviewed by the Board of Supervisors and no action has yet been taken on it.
“We are brokenhearted when there is an occurrence in which a child or at-risk adult is harmed,” she said in an email. “The county is committed to understanding the circumstances surrounding that injury or death to ensure the highest safeguards for our most vulnerable. Protecting children and at-risk adults from harm is one of the most important roles of the county — if not the most important.”
Booth said that being a father has motivated his work. “You see kids that are so badly treated anyone can sympathize,” Booth said. “But as a parent, it breaks your heart. These kids have no one looking out for them.”
The child’s advocate
Booth followed his father’s footsteps into law.
Early in his practice, Booth worked in business litigation and found that a lawyer could work a case for three years only to have it settle before reaching trial. Seeking to push himself and get trial experience, he took an opportunity to work for a short time in the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office. In three months, he said, he tried three or four cases.
Before long, he was working with his father at his firm in Torrance, near where Booth grew up and near where he would raise his own four children. And by the time the cases against Riverside and San Bernardino counties began to take up a large share of his time and energy, Booth said he had improved his ability to discern whether he could prevail in trial.
“Before we take a case, we’ve seen the child’s entire juvenile record — police reports, everything,” Booth said. “We need to see that there’s a violation of a mandatory duty and that it’ll hold up in court.”
When a child is removed from a parent’s custody in Riverside County, he or she is appointed a dependency lawyer who investigates whether the child has any legal claim for what they’ve been through. If the lawyer determines there is evidence of wrongdoing and a suit is appropriate, the court selects another lawyer, like Booth, to take the case.
Certain public employees, like social workers, police officers and teachers, are required by law to report child abuse, even if it’s only a suspicion. Booth said he found so many repeated violations of mandatory duties he was able to start identifying a pattern.
In one case, the county allowed a young girl to stay in her mother’s custody while the woman spiraled into the recesses of addiction and mental illness.
According to Booth’s subsequent lawsuit, the county investigated the girl’s well-being for two years as her mother moved from home to home and eventually refused to communicate with concerned relatives. The mother became pregnant again and told social workers she was not receiving prenatal care.
On several occasions, county social workers visited the home, but ultimately considered the girl’s case inconclusive and closed the investigation.
Days after one of the department’s final visits to the mother’s apartment in 2016, a neighbor flagged down a police car and reported a foul smell coming from the residence. Police found the young girl inside, hugging the remains of her deceased baby sibling.
Booth sued, arguing that the county failed in its mandatory duty to cross report claims of abuse and to thoroughly investigate claims before closing them. He won nearly $1.4 million for the child.
In another case, a 13-year-old girl was impregnated by her mother’s live-in boyfriend, whom the victim said began sexually assaulting her when she was 11.
The boyfriend, Deon Austin Welch, who was later convicted of rape, has been sentenced to 230 years in prison.
During Welch’s trial, the prosecutor said the county was also on trial, albeit figuratively.
Again, Booth argued that county records revealed a pattern in which employees repeatedly closed investigations prematurely, did not work with law enforcement to follow up on abuse claims and ultimately violated their mandatory duty to protect the children involved. Booth settled with the county on the victim’s behalf for $10 million.
While each case is slightly different, Booth said that in this one the settlement was put in a special needs trust managed by a court-appointed trustee.
Booth’s cases aren’t the only proceedings that have revealed failures in DPSS investigations. In 2013, a Riverside County grand jury report found substance abuse, domestic violence, and general neglect in households where the department had previously closed investigations as unfounded or unsubstantiated.
And the pattern continues. Booth plans to claim in his coming suit against the county on behalf of Noah McIntosh and his juvenile relative.
‘Everything gets downgraded’
The juvenile court made the rare decision to release Noah McIntosh’s DPSS record after concluding the boy is most likely dead and juvenile confidentiality laws no longer apply.
According to the redacted records, county authorities received their first report that the boy, then 7 years old, was being neglected in August 2017. The case history shows that a social worker and law enforcement attempted to speak in person with Bryce McIntosh about the claim, but he “refused and advised he was unavailable.”
On Aug. 25, 2017, a Corona police officer returned to Bryce McIntosh’s home to conduct a safety inspection but left after McIntosh did not open the door. The social worker, subsequently, completed a safety assessment claiming both that the “caregiver caused serious physical harm to the child,” but the child was safe.
Within two weeks, both the officer’s criminal investigation of Bryce McIntosh for abuse and the social worker’s investigation into Noah’s safety were closed and the boy remained at the house. But the Riverside County record also shows that Noah’s parents had been investigated two previous times by Orange County related to allegations of physical abuse. The most recent investigation was closed as “unfounded” in October 2013, the redacted records show.
LINK: Orange County records “unfounded”
“In 2013, there were reports that Noah had an adult-sized handprint on his buttocks and a black eye,” according to Booth’s claim. “Noah reported that his father spanked him in the stomach.”
In Riverside County’s redacted records, the social worker makes a passing reference to the 2013 abuse, saying Bryce McIntosh gave Noah a black eye when he threw a wallet at the boy, though it is not clear in the county’s record where the social worker got this information. The information is listed in a “Background Checks” section of the first 2017 report.
Carly Sanchez, one of the attorneys working on the Noah McIntosh case, said the legal team has uncovered information in Riverside County’s records from Orange County’s Department of Children and Family Services in 2013.
Sanchez said she could not release these reports because of juvenile confidentiality laws. But she added: “Riverside County either did or should have known about these allegations once it got involved with the McIntosh family, as the information is found within the Riverside records that we received.”
When asked whether Riverside County could confirm that it had records of Noah’s abuse related to incidents from 2013, Federico said she could not respond due to confidentiality laws and ongoing litigation. A spokeswoman for Orange County also said she could not comment because of confidentiality laws.
In December 2017, Riverside County closed another investigation of the McIntosh home due to the “parent’s refusal to cooperate.”
Several other claims of abuse and neglect were made to the county through 2018. All but two of the 10 reports were closed by social workers who labeled them “unfounded” or “inconclusive,” or left them open with no final determination provided.
Booth said based on his experience reviewing the work of DPSS, it’s rare to see a substantiated claim. “Everything gets downgraded,” he said. “If there is any doubt, it’s [labeled] ‘unfounded.”’
Booth said the problem is compounded by social worker turnover and cases being passed through multiple hands. If a social worker receives a file that has been declared “unfounded,” he said, he or she is less likely to take future claims seriously.
Ultimately, Booth’s October claim accuses Riverside County of violating the civil rights of Noah and his relative by acting with indifference to their suffering and failing to properly train social workers to protect them.
“Despite what the county knew or should have known, it failed and neglected to properly exercise its respective duties and responsibilities,” Booth’s claim reads.
Noah’s case, Booth said, challenges the public’s confidence in the county’s child welfare system’s ability to do its job. “Why is there a Department of Public Social Services when they can’t protect kids like Noah?” he asked.
$12.4 million in settlements last year alone
In the months before Bryce McIntosh was charged with his son’s death, the director of DPSS and the assistant director of children’s services both resigned, and the department was put under a year-long review by the county.
The Office of the County Counsel, the department that handles Riverside County’s civil cases, has focused on increasing oversight of DPSS. When advocating for a new settlement protocol to the Board of Supervisors, the department revealed that settlement payouts have ballooned 55% since 2013 and that last year, DPSS was responsible for the most money paid out in civil settlements of any county department: $12.4 million of $28.2 million.
The Office of County Counsel is also bracing for a heavier DPSS workload; its budget request projects a 27% increase in juvenile dependency cases in the current fiscal year.
The county recently established a new risk management committee that will attempt to hold departments, like DPSS, responsible for paying settlements out of their department budgets if they do not fix their faulty policies or lack of training.
Federico, the county spokeswoman, said the new risk management protocol was approved to “create a more aggressive approach to handling claims.” If a claim has a potential cost greater than $50,000, the new committee will notify DPSS if “corrective actions” to address the problem.
On Oct. 1, DPSS published a report summarizing the independent review the county initiated in 2018 of claims and lawsuits filed against the Children’s Services Division over the past decade. The brief seven-page report cost the county $147,000. It identifies five “overarching complaint categories.”
“These measures include expanded safeguards, enhanced training for social workers, extended hours in the Specialized Placement Unit to better accommodate child placements, expanded audits for high-risk cases and stronger contracts with foster family agencies to ensure supervision and compliance with policies and best practices,” Federico wrote in an email.
Sarah Mack, who has been the director of DPSS since April, said in an interview that the report is one tool among many that the department has implemented to ensure that the safety of children remains the central priority.
“The goal of this department is to implement practices, policies and treatments long before there are incidences that result in a claim,” Mack said. “Our priority is keeping children safe.”
Booth and his team prepared for about six months to file a legal claim against Riverside County on behalf of Noah McIntosh. The claim serves as notice that a suit is being prepared and gives the county the opportunity to settle without a suit being filed or to reject the claim’s findings altogether.
Carly Sanchez said Monday that the law firm has not yet heard back from the county. Sanchez said that her team plans to file a lawsuit, with no predetermined dollar amount for damages, against the county in the next couple of weeks.
These emotionally taxing cases require patience and focus, Booth said — even though they are painful reminders of the horrible things parents sometimes do to their children.
Facing these challenges, Booth said his own family motivates him to get the job done.
His children have all run track competitively, just like he did in high school and college. He still runs with them in races like Torrance’s annual Turkey Trot, but says he can barely keep up. His family motivates him, he said, to keep pushing to make the system more functional.
“These kids have no one looking out for them,” he said. “That’s exactly when the county is supposed to step in. That’s why we have these services and departments. We’re raising that issue and we hope the county pays closer attention to what’s actually happening.”
Desert Sun reporter Christopher Damien covers crime, public safety and the criminal justice system. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at @chris_a_damien.