The family of a 9-year-old boy who walked away from Children's Home of Northern Kentucky in June and was found drowned in the Ohio River says in a federal lawsuit that the agency negligently caused his death.
James and Rhonda O'Brien of Highland, Kentucky, filed the lawsuit on Nov. 23 in federal court in Lexington. In addition to the children's home and some of its employees, the lawsuit names the commonwealth of Kentucky and the Cabinet for Health and Family Services.
On June 4, sometime after 9 a.m., Ian Sousis fled the children's home in Covington. A 911 call about the missing boy, who was small at about 4-foot-2 and 65 pounds, came to Kenton County dispatchers at 9:32 a.m.
"He was heading down − they call them the AWOL steps,” a woman who identified herself as Christina told the 911 dispatcher. (AWOL is a military term meaning absent without leave.) The steps with that nickname are near where Ian had been living. They run through a wooded area and into the city. An employee pursued Ian 13 seconds after he left, police later said, but the boy got away.
Ian had autism and was supposed to be watched at all times. He had a history of running away, which is common for children with autism. Even so, Ian was able to leave the grounds of the children's home that morning, head through Covington neighborhoods and into the Ohio River, where boaters spotted his body hours later.
The Children's Home of Northern Kentucky didn't call the O'Briens when their grandson fled. Ian was in the state's custody, but the grandparents were involved in his life and had asked that their grandson be transferred to another facility because they feared for his safety. The lawsuit says the failure to notify Ian's grandparents that the boy fled the home was "outrageous and intolerable in that it offends against a generally accepted standard of decency and morality."
The suit also claims that the Children's Home of Northern Kentucky was negligent in hiring, training and supervising employees.
The Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services substantiated in an investigation that an employee of the home abandoned and neglected to supervise Ian on the morning he fled. The finding, which is separate from the lawsuit, identifies the employee as Kristina Johnson; the lawsuit names Christina Johnson.
"The Cabinet finds that Ms. Johnson failed to provide adequate or appropriate supervision of the … child," a notification letter sent to Rhonda O'Brien states. "Ms. Johnson acknowledges that she was aware that the child was required to have eyes on him at all times due to his behaviors and past history."
The cabinet is legally barred from commenting on such findings, spokeswoman Susan Dunlap said.
Children's Home of Northern Kentucky CEO Rick Wurth issued a statement Nov. 29, saying the agency "continues to mourn the death of Ian Sousis" and "is cooperating with all appropriate agencies and organizations as it pertains to this matter."
Wurth did not respond to specific questions about Johnson's employment, any reprimands or changes in her training or any new training for other employees.
Dunlap also said the state's investigation into the boy's disappearance and death remains open. A Covington Police records custodian said the police investigation is still open.
More: 9-year-old's grandparents ask whyPrior to drowning, Ian Sousis' grandparents wanted him moved from Covington children's home
911 caller said the boy was going to McDonald's
The 911 caller sounded unsurprised that Ian had left.
“He’s going to McDonald’s in Covington,” she told the dispatcher. “That is his … that’s where he’s (inaudible) end up.”
When the dispatcher asked whether the boy had done this before, the woman responded: "Oh yeah. Several times."
Covington police immediately started searching the city, records show, including several fast-food restaurants.
At 1:13 p.m., nearly four hours after the 911 call, Ian's grandparents learned about his departure. A relative who lives in Northern Kentucky sent a text after seeing a police notification about his disappearance. The O'Briens headed for Northern Kentucky to help search for their grandson.
But eight minutes later, dispatchers received another 911 call: “I’m on a boat in the Ohio River, and we found a body. A child, floating down the river.”
Why was Ian Sousis in the care of the Northern Kentucky Children's Home?
Ian was diagnosed with autism as a toddler and started running away as a little boy. Eventually, the O'Briens had him declared dependent by the state of Kentucky so they could get him care and services.
His final placement, at the Children's Home of Northern Kentucky, came in November 2021, the O'Briens told The Enquirer.
Ian had run away from the children's home before. After he fled on March 15, Rhonda O'Brien emailed a Kentucky child protection worker, saying the family believed he was in imminent danger and needed to be moved to a safer facility. After some discussion, the O'Briens were told that Ian's last day at the children's home would be April 29, 2021. But instead of leaving the children's home, he was moved to the newly opened Cottage C at the home under specific care, Rhonda O'Brien said.
The 911 caller on June 4 said Ian had disappeared from outside Cottage C.
Ian's family wants assurance that other children are safe, says grandmother
Rhonda O'Brien, reached at home Tuesday, was in tears as she spoke about Ian, who'd be 10 now. She also said she's worried about other children in state custody.
"I have concerns that the cabinet sends a child to the Children's Home of Northern Kentucky and that they do not have the appropriate programs and training for children that are in need of individual services," she said.
"Ian needed individualized treatment, and they did not have that there," O'Brien said. "They tried to create it. They failed, and now he's gone."
This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Grandparents sue children's home in grandson's death in Ohio River