Family of girl found dead files suit against Alameda County claiming child services failed to probe abuse

·8 min read
Sophia Mason. (Courtesy of the family)
Sophia Mason who went missing at the age of 8 and whose body was found in Merced, Calif.. (Courtesy of the family)

Just over a year after 8-year-old Sophia Mason’s body was found decomposing in a bathtub in central California where her mother and mother’s boyfriend had lived, her grandmother filed a lawsuit against Alameda County, alleging that social workers refused to investigate numerous child abuse claims made in the 14 months leading up to her death.

Sophia’s aunt, Emerald Johnson, reported Sophia missing on March 8, 2022, after telling Hayward, Calif., police that she had not seen the girl since December 2021. On March 11, 2022, Merced police discovered Sophia’s body in the bathtub of a locked bathroom in a home where Sophia had been staying in Merced with her mother, Samantha Johnson, 31, and her mother’s boyfriend, Dhante Jackson, 34. Officials said that by the time police found her, she had already been dead for about a month.

Johnson and Jackson have been charged with murder and felony child abuse, and remain in custody at the Merced County jail while they wait for an evidentiary hearing set for early June. Johnson has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

“Her mother had a difficult life and perhaps some mental or intellectual disabilities, but she did not display a great amount of interest in Sophia for most of her life,” Carly Sanchez, an attorney for the grandmother, Silvia Johnson, told Yahoo News. “So grandma stepped in to take care of her and raise her.”

Last month, Silvia Johnson filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Alameda County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). The agency had failed to respond within 45 days to the family's claims that the agency had not followed up on numerous referrals. California law requires them to investigate all referrals they receive if there is a report that a child may have been abused or neglected.

“The family and the grandmother are horrified to be in this position,” Sanchez said. “No amount of money could ever bring Sophia back or make what happened worth it to them. But their goal and their focus throughout this entire process has been to make sure that this does not happen to other children in Alameda County and to make Alameda County a safe place for children.”

The reports of abuse to Alameda County began in January 2021, after her mother, Samantha, came back and took Sophia from her grandmother to live with her, Sanchez said. Silvia Johnson had had custody of the girl from the ages of 1 to 7. The lawsuit states that within a few weeks of being in her mother’s care, DCFS began receiving child abuse hotline referrals, advising them that Sophia was being abused and neglected while in her mother’s care in Alameda County.

“Very early on, the county received a referral indicating that Sophia's mother had choked her,” Sanchez said. “When they went out to investigate, Sophia confirmed that those things were happening. They spoke to a school teacher around that same time, and the teacher indicated that she was not certain that Sophia had the communication skills to be able to communicate whether she was in danger or not, or whether she felt safe at home.”

Suspects Samantha Johnson, and her boyfriend Dhante Jackson. (Hayward Police Department via AP, File)
Suspects Samantha Johnson, and her boyfriend Dhante Jackson. (Hayward Police Department via AP, File)

According to the Bay Area News Group, a thorough report by Hayward investigators disclosed that Sophia suffered sexual and physical abuse and was malnourished while in the care of her mother and her mother’s boyfriend. Merced police also said that the mother had told them that Sophia was forced to live in a shed in the backyard of Jackson's home after the girl urinated on the floor, and was sexually and physically abused by Jackson.

Hayward police also reported several instances in which the agency may have mishandled Sophia’s case. For instance, DCFS did not order a forensic interview for Sophia, in which a specifically trained expert interviews children suspected of being abused.

Hayward police declined to comment on the case, due to the pending litigation.

“Despite knowing that Sophia for various reasons may not be able to communicate the fact that she was in danger, the county went on to rely almost exclusively on what Sophia was telling them to determine whether or not this child needed help,” Sanchez said, adding that Sophia “did go on to disclose that mom was hitting her, and mom's friend, who we now know is Dhante Jackson, was hitting her as well.

“Despite the fact that Sophia was disclosing abuse, the county did nothing to help her,” Sanchez alleged. She added that law enforcement has refused to release the coroner’s report or autopsy to the family, citing the pending criminal case.

Yahoo News reached out to Alameda County DCFS for comment.

Sanchez said that Sophia confided in her grandmother and other family members that she was being abused in the months leading up to her death. Mandatory reporters, such as teachers at her school, where she was frequently absent, and doctors, also called the agency with concerns about her.

Sophia’s grandmother considered her the “light of her life,” and said that her playful and precocious behavior took a turn after she was taken back into her mother’s care, according to Sanchez.

“The family has indicated that Sophia appeared to be a different child, withdrawn, quiet, shy, not wanting to talk,” Sanchez said. “So aside from the things that Sophia told them was going on with her mother and things that they saw in terms of bruising on her body, they could tell just from the change in personality that things were not going well with her mother.”

Perhaps one of the most egregious incidents of the alleged mishandling of Sophia’s case by DCFS, according to Sanchez, happened after her mother took her to a Kaiser Permanente hospital in San Leandro, Calif., in September 2021, after what her mother said was a minor car crash. Medical professionals noted that Sophia had sustained extensive bruising and scarring across her back, hip, thigh and buttocks, as well as what appeared to be old cigarette burns on her arms.

“The hospital social worker and the medical professionals who were evaluating Sophia found extensive bruising on her inner thigh, which of course is indicative of child sexual abuse,” Sanchez told Yahoo News. “But if you look at the county records, the county only says that she has bruises that are suspicious in nature. So they didn't document the location of the bruises, which they're required to do. Then the county told the hospital, ‘It's fine for you to let Sophia leave with her mother,’” Sanchez continued.

The Kaiser medical team reported the suspected abuse to DCFS after documenting that her pattern of injuries was not consistent with injuries sustained from a car crash, according to the grandmother’s lawyer. They asked a pediatrician to conduct a more thorough exam. Samantha Johnson left with Sophia before she could be examined.

“Allegedly, a social worker went out to see Sophia just two days later and said that she had no bruising or marks or bruising indicative of abuse on her body at all,” Sanchez said. “The fact that the hospital is saying that she has scarring that's suspicious in nature, and having seen photographs of the bruises, those would still have been there two days later.”

Hayward police records say that after the mother’s arrest, a day before Sophia’s body was found in 2022, she admitted that she had lied to Kaiser clinicians and said that the girl’s injuries were the result of Jackson's beating her with a belt.

After the incident, San Leandro police were not notified of the alleged abuse until six days later. The agency has said that it has no record of any reports in Sophia’s case. California law requires county child protective services to report abuse claims to police within 36 hours.

Yahoo News has reached out to San Leandro police for further comment.

“After Sophia's body was discovered, the Hayward Police Department, who I think did an excellent investigation when they were looking for her, when she was still considered missing, called Alameda County [Child Protective Services], and they were told at that time that nobody from CPS had seen Sophia in connection with the referral from Kaiser,” Sanchez continued.

Samantha Johnson also alleged that Jackson sometimes punched Sophia in the face and that she could not stop him from hitting Sophia when he was “in rage mode.”

“I believe personally that there were two victims of Mr. Jackson: One survived and one didn’t,” said Beth Lee, Samantha Johnson's public defender, in March 2022.

“[Samantha Johnson] is a woman, a human being, that has a whole story to tell about her life … and she deserves to have the dignity that all of us have.”

Sanchez added that the mishandling of the case is part of a bigger problem in Alameda County. According to the Bay Area News Group, the county ranked second-to-last in California in its “ability to conduct in-person investigations within 10 days of reports of abuse or neglect,” a violation of state law.

“The fact that the county is not investigating child abuse hotline referrals on a regular basis is extremely disturbing,” Sanchez stated. “I think that it certainly means that other children are being unnecessarily exposed to extreme risk and abuse. The family is aware of that, and they're aware that, unfortunately, when Sophia was alive and they were pleading with the county for help, nobody wanted to listen. And so the goal with this lawsuit is to get their attention.”