April 14, 2010 -- A South Carolina mother has been granted permission to sue the U.S. Army in the beating death of her little girl in a case that could force the Pentagon to take a hard look at its duties to families stationed on base.
Tarshia Williams' 5-year-old daughter Talia was beaten to death on a Hawaii Army base after what she charged were repeated failures on the part of military personnel to protect her daughter from obvious signs of abuse, allegedly at the hands of her father and stepmother.
In his ruling, federal Judge Alan Kay cast aside the Army's defense that the government does not have a duty to report or act on claims of child abuse, saying there was enough evidence to go to trial over accusations that the military police and other Army employees were negligent.
"There was instance after instance after instance in which the appropriate investigation would have revealed how at-risk this child was," said Mark Davis, Williams' Honolulu-based attorney, told ABCNews.com. "The system just repeatedly failed."
While all states have some type of child protection services where complaints and allegations are logged, the Army typically handles such matters on its own through military police and the Army Family Advocacy Program.
Even an Army major general noted in an investigation into Talia's death, according to court documents, that there was "a series of missed opportunities to potentially prevent the death of the child."
Talia Williams died in July 2005 after a severe beating to the head. The autopsy report stated she suffered from "battered child syndrome."
Davis said he wants this lawsuit to be a "call to arms" that the Army, if it's going to have its own procedures to protect children outside of state laws, needs to act more responsibly than it did in the Williams case.
This case, he said, could be precedent-setting.
Military legal expert Eugene Fidell, who teaches military law at Yale Law School and is the president of the National Institute of Military Justice, said Army agrees to certain responsibilities when it offers youth and family services on base.
In this case, he said, it appears the federal government failed Talia Williams.
"This is a quite, quite unusual case," Fidell said. "It's also a wake-up call to the Pentagon to make sure that these programs are not an automatic pilot."
Kay also ruled that despite federal procedures, the Army was not exempt from Hawaii's Good Samaritan laws that call for suspected child abuse to be reported and investigated.
U.S. Attorney Thomas Helper, assigned to defend the government, did not comment on Kay's ruling.
Army spokeswoman Betsy Weiner told ABCNews.com, "The Army cannot comment on pending litigation."
Fidell said he expected the Army would appeal.
"This is by no means over," he said.
Delilah Williams, Talia's stepmother, pleaded guilty and received 20 years in prison in exchange for testifying against her husband. Naeem Williams' death penalty trial is scheduled to start in January. The capital felony charge was ordered by then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez.
Court Documents Detail Months of Suspected Child Abuse
Williams' lawsuit notes several incidents that should have, she charges, raised red flags for authorities at Wheeler Army Air Force Base where Talia lived with Naeem and Delilah Williams.
"This is essentially about a botched investigation of child abuse," Davis said. "They had more than just allegations."
Not only does Williams have a case against the government, Fidell said, "she certainly has a chance to win."
"Obviously there was a lot of dysfunction in this picture," said Fidell, who read Kay's ruling. "Military families are under great stress, and the same types of dysfunctions that arise in civilian families arise in the military community and then some."
Delilah Williams' arrest in January for endangering the welfare of a minor after she threw objects during a fight with her husband in Talia's presence was never reported to Child Protective Services, according to court documents. Instead, it was referred to the Army's Family Advocacy Program where a social worker inccorectly reported that Talia wasn't present during the fight. The social worker also never interviewed the little girl.
Less than a month later, military police were called after workers at the federal child care center at the Schofield Barracks noted marks on her body they believed might be signs of abuse.
Despite being told by Talia that her "mother did it ... [her] father did it," the military agent in charge of investigating the claim sent the Honolulu police away and did not report it to state child protective services or enter it in the Family Advocacy Program database, court documents said.
In June 2005, a co-worker of Delilah Williams' at the Schofield Barracks told a superior that she heard Delilah Williams say it was "okay to whip a child, just don't leave any marks," according to court documents. That superior did not file a report or direct the co-worker to call military police.
And on June 29, 2005 military police failed to notify CPS even after military police responded to a report of a child screaming at the Williams house for over an hour and found Talia "naked and mute, standing near feces on the floor" with with marks on her body and scratches on her face.
Less than three weeks later, Talia was dead. The Honolulu Advertiser cited a court report in which Delilah admitted to beating the child with a belt and stomping on the girl's stomach so hard she defecated on herself.
It was Naeem Williams, the court alleged, who delivered the fatal beating.
Little Girl Was Torn Between Parents Before Her Death
Talia's parents were never married and did not have a relationship beyond the union that produced the child. Though she was raised by Tarshia Williams for most of her short life, she was moved to Hawaii after a South Carolina judge awarded custody to Naeem and Deliliah Williams amid allegations that Talia had been found malnourished in her mother's care.
Davis, who did not handle Tarshia's custody case, said the allegations stemmed from her life as a lesbian and that the girl was later found to have a growth disorder.
She lived with the couple in Hawaii for just seven months before she was murdered.
Tarshia, he said, tried to help her daughter after fearing she was being abused in Hawaii, but was poor and had few places to turn for help.
"She had information from talking to the child herself that the child was mistreated," he said. "She tried to call the school, but she was a woman who had very little resources. She couldn't even afford long-distance phone calls."
Davis declined to discuss what kind of monetary damages they are seeking on Williams' behalf, but said the Army's defense of its actions alone is "exactly why this case is so very, very important."
Bill Bradner, spokesman for the Army Family Morale, Welfare and Recreation Command, which oversees the Family Advocacy Program, said he couldn't comment on the specifics of the lawsuit, citing pending litigation, but startled at the Army's defense.
After all, he noted, the Army Regulation police clearly spells out policy "on the prevention, identification, reporting, investigation and treatment of spouse and child abuse."
The lawsuit is scheduled to go to trial in January. Davis noted, however, that the courts have ruled that Neem Williams' death penalty trial, scheduled for the same month, must go first.