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."
Officer Checked the Car, But Didn't Check the Car's Trunk
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.
Rossetti said the cop who started to search the Camry had actually told her supervisors that the car had been searched even though she never finished searching the car, and that two command centers set up by police during the search gave conflicting orders over whether or not to even search the car in the first place.
"This has to do with training and a lack of diligence, you're a professional and have to take the job seriously," Rossetti said.
Camden City Attorney Howard McCoach told ABC News the settlement was not at all indicative that the city or police force took any blame for the tragic outcome.
"You can't troll anything from the settlement. The decision to settle was with the city's insurance company, Meadowbrook Insurance," McCoach said.
Camden Police Admit No Wrongdoing in Failing to Find Missing Children
The city is liable for the first $300,000 of any litigation, McCoach said, and once that amount is exceeded Meadowbrook takes over and in this instance McCoach said he assumes the insurance company decided it was better to settle while giving no admissions of liability or guilt.
"There are no admissions in this case that we did anything wrong," McCoach said.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has trained over 260,000 police officers and officials over the last 25 years in how to properly search for missing children and the Camden Police Department has not participated, center spokesman Ernie Allen said.
According to Allen training in how to extensively and systematically break down a search for missing children is the most important factor when time is essential. He said the Camden police acted aggressively in their search.
"I remember this case very well, and how horrible it was. And the other thing I remember was the Camden police took this case really seriously," Allen said. "They devoted an extraordinary amount of effort to find these children."
"I hear from police all over America all of the time, it doesn't matter how aggressive you are, how hard you try, if you don't find the children, you fail," Allen added.
"Clearly, somebody should have looked in the trunk. That goes without saying," he said.
Allen worries that the settlement could make police departments leery of searching for children. If they search and fail, they could be sued, but if they argue that searching for children isn't their job, there is no liability.
"Anytime there are these kinds of settlements in these cases, one of the things you worry about is that it makes police departments less willing to be aggressive because of fear of civil liability if it doesn't turn out well," he said.
Rather than impact the effort put forth by police in these cases, Allen hopes that police use this case as an example of the importance of proper training.
"Our hope is not just Camden, but police departments across the U.S. will learn from it," Allen said.
Both attorney's say the families do take some responsibility for what happened. They knew the boys had played in the car on prior occasions, but were so panicked and distraught they never thought of it, which according to the lawyers is exactly why police should be extensively trained in how to handle the search and the families involved are needed.
"The parents panicked, they were completely out of it. They called the police because they are the professionals," Rossetti said.
According to Rossetti, the police department admitted they did not follow guidelines put forth by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, but instead had their own policy in place.
"The Camden Police choose to keep a policy on searches that's one and a have pages, and it's woefully deficient. Even the state police here in New Jersey have adopted much more extensive guidelines than the Camden Police," Rossetti said.
The harsh online criticism leveled at the families has been especially hard to take, both attorney's said.
"The parents, all of them were very harshly criticized in the local media and still are in comments on articles. People say we're scum ...lawyers, these parents weren't watching their kids and they were responsible. My clients took that personally and are very distraught," Rossetti said.
Families Criticized for Suing Police Who Failed to Find Their Children
"People say they should have been responsible, that it's not the police's responsibility and these are money grubbing parents only interested in money. Some very hateful and disgusting things people are writing," Brandes said.
"It was a mistake of the parents to not remember the kids might be in the car, but that's what the professionals are there for, to save you from those basic everyday mistakes," Brandes said.
According to Brandes the police conducted a panel review after the boys were found and concluded the department should have located the boys.
"The panel report said you cannot rely on the parents when they are panicked, you can try to get information from them but don't rely on that, that's why you have trained professionals. The panel found the boys should have been found by the police right then and there," Brandes said.
"Hopefully lawsuits like this make the Camden police get their acts together," Rosetti said.