Mom: “I want them to acknowledge their mistakes and fix it so this doesn’t happen to somebody else’s baby.”
Seventeen-month-old Layla Jackson had been in a suburban Minneapolis foster home for just four months when she died a brutal death at the hands of her foster father – after county officials failed to follow up on numerous signs that the placement was unsafe.
Those are among the allegations leveled in a wrongful death lawsuit filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis by Lisa M. Brabbit, a trustee for the girl’s family, against Hennepin and Scott counties as well as the foster mother and two social workers assigned to the case.
Brabbit, an attorney and senior dean of the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis, was state court appointed as a neutral trustee in the Layla Jackson case in 2018. In the suit, Brabbit alleges that the counties placed Layla, identified as LMJ in the lawsuit, with Jessica and Jason Betlach, who were not properly screened and who presented a serious risk of abuse and neglect. A spokesperson for Hennepin County said they did not comment on pending litigation. A representative of Scott County said the county had not yet been served with the lawsuit.
Attempts to reach the other defendants were unsuccessful.
The girl’s mother, Latasha Bacon, said in an interview that she lost custody of Layla after the child suffered a broken leg during a weekend visit with her non-custodial father. Child Protective Services placed Layla and her brother with the Betlachs in Jordan, Minnesota, a small community about 35 miles southwest of Minneapolis.
But, while Jason Betlach signed a document consenting to foster the children, he later told police he “never agreed” to be a foster parent. He displayed extraordinary cruelty and bigotry toward Layla, referring to her as “a mongoloid,” shouting “white power!” in her face and drawing “Loser” on her forehead with a marker, according to a criminal complaint and the lawsuit. Betlach is white. Layla was Black and Native American. He also told Layla in a video that she was not allowed to play with the toys belonging to the Betlachs’ daughter.
On Aug. 26, 2018, Betlach called 911, saying he found Layla unconscious in her bedroom. A trauma physician noted severe brain injury and retinal hemorrhaging, which she said was a common marker of a violent shaking. Two days later, Layla was taken off life support.
“He was mean to my baby sister and me,” Layla’s brother later told a nurse, according to the complaint. “He would slam her in her crib and say, ‘I’ll murder you.’”
Betlach, who was 30 at the time of the incident, was charged with first- and second-degree murder. He pleaded guilty in February 2020 to second-degree unintentional murder while committing a felony. He is now serving a 30-year prison sentence.
Layla “was yet another victim of Hennepin County’s broken child welfare system and the County’s deliberate indifference to the welfare, safety, and medical needs of the foster children in its legal custody,” the lawsuit alleged. “Despite multiple warnings to and red flags known by Hennepin County social worker Bree Meduna…LMJ was left in a foster home where she was racially harassed, mocked, beaten, and then murdered.”
Layla Jackson was born prematurely at 24 weeks and suffered serious medical problems, including respiratory issues. She also exhibited delayed physical, cognitive, communicative and social-emotional development – all of which necessitated her placement in a foster home capable of addressing special medical needs, the suit said.
Layla Jackson and her 7-year-old brother were initially placed in the custody of Hennepin County, whose county seat is Minneapolis, in March 2018, the suit said. They were placed in foster care with the Betlachs on or around April 19 of that year. Layla remained there until her death four months later.
The siblings were placed with the Betlachs because Bacon had known Jessica Betlach since childhood and considered her an unofficial cousin, Bacon said. She approved the placement, but now says she had only a passing acquaintance with Jason Betlach. Scott County and social worker Julie Malecha shared responsibility for the children’s well-being because that county was the licensing agency for the Betlachs. Jordan is located in Scott County.
Minnesota law allows relatives and fictive kin to act as temporary caregivers without immediately becoming licensed foster parents. But eventually, for the children to remain in their care, their homes must be approved of by child welfare agencies, and they must go through the process of becoming licensed foster parents.
Malecha did not visit the Betlach home until July 11, 2018. At that time, she found a lack of smoke detectors and discovered weapons and ammunition stored together, unlocked, in areas accessible or within view of children, the suit alleges. She met during that visit only with Jessica Betlach. Neither social worker ever met with or spoke to Jason Betlach.
Both social workers knew that Jason and Jessica Betlach “were hostile towards training and fulfilling other licensing requirements,” according to the lawsuit. The state required them to complete the licensing process within 120 days, which would have been Aug. 17, 2018. The Betlachs never even started it, refusing to attend the training or meet with the social worker, the suit alleged.
The counties and social workers also failed to confirm Jason Betlach’s statements about his criminal history, the suit stated. In May, he signed a document saying he had no criminal history. In fact, a cursory review would have revealed that he had charges and/or convictions for possession of drugs and paraphernalia, theft, a DWI and a citation for not using a car seat with a child younger than 8, the suit said.
The counties and their social workers knew or should have known that the Betlachs were “completely incapable” of caring for Layla, the suit alleged.
Hoang Murphy, founder and executive director of Foster Advocates in St. Paul, said that emergency foster care placements without proper oversight allow counties to close cases quickly — and that has unintended consequences. “They are doing things that are deeply reckless and not in the interest of protecting children,” he said.
Bacon, Layla’s mother, warned Meduna “on multiple occasions” that the baby was not safe with the Betlachs, in part because of the danger Jason Betlach posed, but the social workers failed to act, the suit alleged.
Bacon now criticizes the county’s decision to place her children with the Betlach family. Shortly before Layla’s death, as Bacon did everything she could to regain custody, her son was returned to her from the Betlach home – but not Layla.
“I was like, if he came home she should have come home, too,” she said.
The Hennepin County Medical Examiner ruled Layla’s death a homicide and said she died of cardiopulmonary arrest due to or as a consequence of blunt force head and neck injury.
The case was not the first in which a child died in Hennepin County foster care, the suit noted. In December 2014, a 6-year-old, Kendrea Johnson, hung herself with a jump rope tied to her bunk bed in a foster home. In November 2017, 3-year old Arianna Hunziker died after being “starved, dehydrated, bound, immobilized and abandoned in a home littered in trash and smelling of urine,” according to a separate lawsuit.
Layla Jackson “was another example of Hennepin County placing a child with serious medical needs with foster parents who were woefully inadequate to care for those needs, and then failing to properly monitor the placement to ensure for the child’s safety and welfare despite knowledge of the myriad dangers presented to each of those children,” her suit alleged.
The suit calls for compensatory and punitive damages, as well as attorneys’ fees.
Bacon, 33, said the child protection system failed her and her family.
“I want them to acknowledge their mistakes and fix it so this doesn’t happen to somebody else’s baby,” she said. “We’re thinking child protection is here to help us. You took my kids saying you’re better fit to have them.”