A jury in Northern California has awarded nearly $25 million to three siblings who were sexually abused by a foster parent, compensation that attorneys for the children describe as some measure of accountability for the assaults they suffered.
In 2020, Mark Zapata Martinez was sentenced to a lengthy prison term for the crimes. But a civil suit filed in 2019 in Sonoma County Superior Court sought further accountability from all involved parties.
On Dec. 1, jurors concluded fault fell squarely with the agency that placed the children in Martinez’s home. The Santa Rosa-based Alternative Family Services, one of the state’s largest foster care agencies, will be responsible for 60% of damages, an amount totaling nearly $15 million. Mark Martinez will be liable for 35% of the award, and his wife Martha for 5%.
Scott Montgomery, an attorney with Abbey, Weitzenberg, Warren & Emery who represented the three children, said Alternative Family Services failed to properly approve and supervise the Martinez foster home. Specifically, he said an agency caseworker who conducted a “home study” failed to oversee the completion of a required questionnaire, and to properly interview the two foster parents. Montgomery added that the inadequate evaluation was among the four California Department of Social Services regulations that Alternative Family Services failed to follow.
“They didn’t take safety seriously,” he said in an interview with The Imprint.
An attorney representing the foster care agency in the case objected to last week’s verdict, and vowed to appeal. Daniel Friedenthal described Alternative Family Services (AFS) as a nonprofit dedicated to serving vulnerable children, deploying practices that often exceed state standards in approving foster homes.
“AFS feels awful about this happening,” Friedenthal said in an interview. “But there was no sign here that this guy was going to be a child molester.”
The three foster children named in the lawsuit are identified as C.F., E.F. and S.F. They were ages 7, 5 and 2 when the foster care agency placed them in the foster home with Martinez. Court records show the siblings were in the home for 70 days beginning in April 2018, while they awaited reunification with their father. The police opened a case against Martinez in June of that year, after one of the children reported during a visit with their father that Martinez had sexually abused two sisters. A third sibling “was traumatized due to witnessing the sexual misconduct/assaults on his siblings,” court records state.
Martinez was eventually arrested and confessed to sexual abuse of the two young children, Montgomery said. In March 2020, he pleaded no contest to two felony counts of oral copulation of a minor under the age of 10 years and committing a lewd and lascivious act on a child under the age of 14. This May, he was sentenced to 15 years to life in state prison.
The subsequent civil suit sought to determine “past noneconomic damages including physical pain, mental suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, anxiety, inconvenience, grief, and emotional distress,” court documents state.
After hours of depositions and court hearings, a Sonoma County jury returned the verdict holding Alternative Family Services with the largest share of liability. The agency that works with families and children in 20 Northern California counties was founded more than 40 years ago to provide foster homes and placements for runaway teens in San Francisco.
The mission of Alternative Family Services “is to support vulnerable children and families in need of stability, safety, and well-being in their communities,” the agency’s website reads. The agency did not return repeated requests for comment and instead referred a reporter to an attorney.
In an interview this week, however, the lawyer for the children pointed to evidence of the agency’s negligence, which he said came up at trial. The questionnaire used by the agency to evaluate foster and adoptive families — known as a “home study” — was missing several responses, Montgomery said. Among them was the answer to a question about whether the prospective foster parents had any mental health issues, and another about whether they had ever experienced abuse as a child.
One response that was filled in on the questionnaire indicated that “sexual relations” were an issue of conflict in the Martinez couple’s relationship. That was a “red flag” that wasn’t properly followed up on, Montgomery said.
He also said Alternative Family Services employees had not properly interviewed the couple by talking to each separately, and by meeting with them in their home. Finally, agency paperwork indicated that a caseworker did not confirm whether they received the agency’s policy manual.
The attorney for the foster care agency disputed those assertions. Friedenthal said although a “highly experienced” caseworker had not properly overseen the completion of all paperwork items by the Martinez family, she had followed up on the missing questions in subsequent conversations with the foster parents.
Mark and Martha Martinez had previously raised five children and successfully fostered nine children with another agency, Friedenthal said. The family had passed FBI and Department of Justice background checks and had no prior sexual abuse allegations lodged against them, he said.
CORRECTION: This story was updated on Dec. 7, 2023, to note that the caseworker for Alternative Family Services was not responsible for filling out the home study questionnaire.
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