A civil lawsuit filed against Riverside County last month alleges that social workers were aware of allegations of abuse being inflicted on 8-year-old Noah McIntosh nearly two years before the boy's death but failed to properly investigate and intervene to protect him.
The boy's father, Bryce McIntosh, is awaiting trial on torture and murder charges in connection with his son's death last year. Noah's mother, Jillian Godfrey, pleaded guilty to two felony counts of child endangerment in December.
Noah was reported missing by his mother in March 2019 after years of "horrific abuse and neglect" at the hands of his father that on at least three occasions triggered referrals by Riverside County Child Protective Services, according to the lawsuit. Despite an intense search that produced many incriminating clues, Noah's body has not been found.
The lawsuit, filed in Riverside County Superior Court on behalf of Noah's older sister, who is a minor, names the county and five social workers who attorneys contend violated the state's Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act and breached their duties when they failed to protect the girl and her brother.
"There's cases where social workers have to make tough calls, but this case in particular was one where it was clear that this boy and his sister were being abused and the father really didn't deny it," said attorney Roger Booth, who is representing the girl. "They really had an opportunity to do something here and they just did nothing."
County spokeswoman Brooke Federico noted that the county has made several improvements since late 2019 to the county's Children's Services Division, including leadership changes and a "shift in culture towards greater accountability and safer practices and outcomes."
"While the county is limited on providing specific details related to any pending litigation, protecting children, dependent adults and families from abuse and neglect is at the core of the Department of Public Social Services’ mission and is a top priority for the county," Federico wrote in an email. "It’s heartbreaking when children and vulnerable adults suffer harm."
News of the lawsuit comes a day after a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge dismissed criminal charges of child abuse and falsifying public records against four social workers who had been accused of failing to protect Gabriel Fernandez. The 8-year-old Palmdale boy was tortured and killed by his mother and her boyfriend in 2013.
Gabriel's case, which became the subject of a Netflix series, touched off a firestorm of debate over the breakdown of local government in protecting him and whether social workers should be held criminally liable in such situations.
"There's certain cases — the Fernandez case is an example and the McIntosh case is an example — where it's clear that CPS should act," Booth said. "They're not just there to do investigations and write reports. They are there to take action when action is required. That's what these cases are about."
Noah and his sister lived for several years with their maternal grandparents in Orange County until July 2017, when they went to visit their father in Corona and he refused to return them. A month later, social workers were called to investigate allegations of neglect and physical abuse.
According to the complaint, over the course of their investigation, the workers learned that Noah's hands and feet had been zip-tied together for long periods of time, he was handcuffed to a bathtub in cold water for hours, had his head dunked underwater — sometimes while wearing a blindfold — and was forced to consume laxatives and made to sit in his own feces if he soiled himself. Noah's sister was forced to assist their father in carrying out the torture and was subjected to her own physical and psychological abuse, the lawsuit alleges.
The social workers acknowledged in writing that the father had "inflicted serious physical harm on Noah" and "was a threat to continue to do so," the lawsuit states. However, when McIntosh and Godfrey refused to cooperate with their investigation, the social workers closed their file without interviewing the children.
In November 2017, social workers received another referral to the home, based on allegations of general neglect. They learned that McIntosh — as a form of punishment — had taken Noah to school wearing only toilet training pants and a shirt. He had also forced the boy to wear girl's clothing to school, according to the lawsuit.
Once again, the lawsuit alleges, the parents would not speak to social workers or allow their children to do so. Social workers closed the investigation as inconclusive and took no further action.
Three months later, social workers received a third allegation of neglect and discovered that McIntosh had forced his children to sleep in a car with their mother. Officials again closed the referral as inconclusive after the parents again refused to cooperate, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit is seeking an undisclosed amount in damages from the county. It is also seeking punitive damages against the individual social workers, an effort to hold them legally accountable for their actions.
"The parents’ lack of cooperation, rather than being a reason to stop defendants’ investigations in their tracks, should have made it clear to defendants that more proactive steps were urgently needed," the lawsuit states. "Defendants did not exercise discretion in deciding not to take such steps. Rather, they willfully turned a blind eye to the abuse and neglect and simply decided not to do their jobs."