Three families whose children suffocated to death after they accidently locked themselves in the trunk of an old car have received a settlement of $2.25 million from the city of Camden, N.J. after they sued the city claiming the police failed to find the children in time.
The families are also receiving a barrage of online criticism allegedly from people who believe the lawsuit is the latest outrage in a lawsuit-happy society. Typical of the comments was one from the Philadelphia Enquirer's online site that railed, "How pathetic. Blaming the police for your own lack of parenting skills. Why didn't they watch their own kids? and why didn't they search the car themselves?"
Many of the messages are far harsher.
But lawyers for the families argue that the case is the result of improperly trained police, and experts say the settlement may have serious implications for other municipalities, especially with Amber Alerts and reports of missing children almost a daily occurrence.
"They see it as profoundly bittersweet," Paul Brandes, attorney for the family of Anibal Cruz told ABC News. "The only solace they have is the fact that they got justice for their son, and just as importantly they made the community better because the police force has been made to address deficient policies."
Brandes argued the Camden police failed to follow protocols and procedures for searching for missing children as they tried to locate Daniel Agosto, 6, Anibal Cruz, 11, and Jesstin Pagan, 5.
The children were reported missing after playing in Cruz's front yard in 2005, three hours after parents who were watching the boys lost track of them. It was later determined that they climbed into the trunk of a Toyota Camry parked in the Cruz's yard.
Despite an extensive search by police that included helicopters and bloodhounds, Brandes said the police were disorganized and improperly trained.
"We were suing them for performing an improper search, and for failure to properly train police officers to conduct a search," Brandes said. "There are national protocols in place for years, and this department made no effort to learn about them."
Those protocols, put out by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, include detailed search checklists, the lawyer said.
One female officer is cited in court documents and police reports for beginning to search the Camry parked in the Cruz's yard. According to Brandes the officer was pulled away from the car before the search was complete and never went back to search. The children were found in the trunk of the car three days later by a relative looking for jumper cables. Also found in the car's back seat were their shoes, missed by the police during their search. According to the coroner's report, the boys were most likely alive for 13-hours inside the trunk.
The officer "had the greatest opportunity to find these kids. She went to the car, she claims she got distracted and pulled away when someone said the boys were found at a pizza parlor. She said her intent all along was to finish searching the car, but she never did it. It's emblematic of what happens when you don't have ingrained policies in the minds of the officers," Brandes said.
"If that one officer had done what she's supposed to do, none of this would have ever happened," Andrew Rossetti, attorney for the family of Daniel Agosto told ABC News.