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Montana jury orders state to pay $16M to child abuse victim

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GREAT FALLS — A Montana jury has awarded $16.6 million in damages to a victim of child abuse after a judge ruled the state failed to properly investigate abuse allegations before the 6-month-old girl suffered a traumatic brain injury that led to blindness, developmental delays and seizures.

District Court Judge Elizabeth Best in Great Falls found the state was negligent in investigating abuse reported in December 2008, and held the state responsible for the injuries the girl suffered in February 2009. The jury awarded the damages on Nov. 17.

"This is an important moment for our client and represents a measure of justice for her," Larry Anderson, one of the lawyers for the now 13-year-old girl, said in a statement. "The jury's verdict also recognizes the importance of properly investigating child abuse complaints."

The complaint against the state argued that a Division of Child and Family Services caseworker did not assess whether the girl was safe in the custody of her father and his girlfriend and did not remove her from their home after the December 2008 abuse, leading her to suffer preventable abuse.

Alicia Jo Hocter, the girlfriend of the victim's father, was sentenced in July 2010 to 30 years in prison without the possibility of parole after being found guilty of aggravated assault and criminal endangerment.

Hocter held the infant around the waist and swung her against the edge of a wooden crib two or three times, then tossed the child into the crib, left the room and closed the door, prosecutors said at the time.

The jury awarded the girl $6.6 million for future care, $5 million for the loss of her course of life, $4 million for mental and emotional suffering, $713,000 for lost earnings and $336,000 for past care.

The girl attends a boarding school for blind and deaf people.

The Department of Public Health and Human Services did not immediately respond to an email Wednesday asking if the agency planned to appeal the award, but agency Director Adam Meier seemed to suggest that was possible.

"While the correctness of the court's decision remains in dispute, the unspeakable nature of this crime is not," Meier said Wednesday in a statement to the Great Falls Tribune. "Our hearts go out to the victim of this terrible crime, and the state is safer with the perpetrator incarcerated. This tragedy serves as a reminder of what our agency, our partners, and in particular our child welfare professionals do each and every day to protect children."

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