Then, at about 1:30 a.m. on Nov. 23, 2011, Athena was taken to the hospital with a fever and a laceration on the back of her head that required several staples.
Court records say she had been shoved in a sink. The child was treated and taken home.
Eighteen hours later, Athena, in cardiac arrest, was rushed back to the hospital. She had bruises on her abdomen and was bleeding internally. Court records say she had been punched in the stomach and rib cage.
The dark-haired girl died that day.
In the month leading up to Athena’s death, officials with the Connecticut Department of Children and Families were aware that she was being abused by her mother’s live-in boyfriend, according to court documents.
Athena’s pediatrician and employees from her preschool all reported the suspected abuse to state officials. Yet, in at least five occasions, Athena was allowed to go back to an abusive home in Willimantic, Conn., where she lived with her mother, Rosa Gladis Diaz-Mendez, and her boyfriend, Fredy Alexander Chingo Riz.
Riz, 28, was sentenced last year to 29 years in prison for first-degree manslaughter. Diaz-Mendez, 29, was sentenced to six years for risk of injury to a minor.
Now, the state of Connecticut is facing a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by Athena’s biological father and Diaz-Mendez’s ex-husband, Hugo Angeles. Efforts to reach him Tuesday were unsuccessful.
The lawsuit, filed last month, alleges that Athena’s untimely death “was a direct result of the negligence and carelessness” of the state’s child welfare employees.
The wrongful death lawsuit comes nearly four years after Athena’s father started to pursue legal action against state officials.
Connecticut, like other states and the federal government, has sovereign immunity and can’t be sued in court without its consent. Parties who seek to sue the state must first go through the Office of the Claims Commissioner, which then decides whether the lawsuit will go forward.
In Athena’s case, her father filed claims in 2012 with the Office of the Claims Commissioner, asking for permission to sue state officials. At that time, Angeles asked for $20 million in damages for Athena’s death and $5 million for injuries suffered by his other daughter, Artemisa, who also was abused by Riz.
But the claims remained pending for more than two years without any decision from the Office of the Claims Commissioner. In January 2015, Hugo Angeles’s attorney, Robert Reardon, wrote a letter to state Sen. Eric Coleman (D), urging state legislators to intervene.
“This tragedy occurred over three years ago and the evidence before the claims commissioner is overwhelming that the Department of Children and Families was negligent and the negligence of this State agency resulted in the death of Athena Angeles and serious injuries to her sister, Artemisa,” Reardon wrote. “The Angeles family has waited long enough to be granted their basic due process rights to have their case heard in a court of law. Any further delay would be a grave disservice to this family that has so patiently waited for justice.”
Reardon told The Washington Post that his firm also hired a lobbyist to work on changing state law so that claims such as Angeles’s can move forward without getting trapped in a backlog of cases at the Office of the Claims Commissioner.
“It just seemed to us that that particular law needed to be changed,” Reardon said.
In a 2015 letter to the General Assembly, former Claims commissioner J. Paul Vance Jr., who resigned earlier this year, said that each claim is reviewed and analyzed carefully despite the office’s small staff and limited budget.
Last legislative session, lawmakers tweaked the law so that the Office of the Claims Commissioner will be required to approve a claim if it’s tied to another pending lawsuit. In Angeles’s case, he had already filed a related medical malpractice lawsuit against the hospital where Athena was admitted before her death, Reardon said.
In light of the change in the law, the new Claims commissioner, Christy Scott, finally gave Angeles permission to sue state officials last month. The lawsuit was filed on Sept. 16 — nearly five years after Athena died.
“As a state senator, I’m embarrassed by the facts leading to this child’s death,” Sen. Len Fasano (R) said, according to the Hartford Courant. “Some of the facts are almost uncontroverted.”
Athena’s death prompted an internal investigation by the Department of Children and Families, which did not comment on the wrongful death lawsuit. In 2012, the state agency’s commissioner, Joette Katz, announced educational efforts to help medical providers recognize signs of child abuse.
“Detecting child abuse is not an easy or simple task,” Katz said in an earlier news release. “We know that not every child injury — or even death — can be averted. But by detecting abuse as soon as possible after it starts, we are intervening early and possibly preventing something much worse in the future.”