MINNEAPOLIS — Ever since the murder of 6-year-old Eli Hart in May, allegedly at the hands of his own mother, many have wondered why the court system returned the boy to Julissa Thaler's care.
Now, Eli's father Tory Hart is suing Dakota County and three workers, claiming that they are responsible for Eli's death by failing to protect the child from Thaler despite countless red flags.
Thaler — accused of shooting Eli multiple times at close range while strapped into a booster seat in her car — was given custody 10 days earlier by a judge at the recommendation of Dakota County Social Services officials.
Tory Hart's wrongful death lawsuit lays out dozens of disturbing incidents involving Thaler's care that he says those officials knew about.
For example, in February 2021, a social worker noted "bizarre behavior by sharing video with Eli." The lawsuit says the mother showed cat feces on screen to the boy in front of the county employee. The video then "became increasingly chaotic" as Thaler attempts to cook chili and grabs her cat by the neck while muttering things to herself.
A February 2022 report indicated that "Eli often arrived to school without his hearing aids, and shared with his teacher on several occasions that he did not sleep the night before."
And during Eli's last Christmas, which he spent with Thaler, Tory Hart noticed on a Facetime call with his son Dec. 27, that the boy had not been changed out of the pajamas he was wearing on Dec. 23. In addition, the boy told his dad that Santa did not come to Thaler's home.
At first, the social workers removed Eli from the home before recommending his return to Thaler.
"Who [Thaler] had a known history of mental health non-compliance and struggles and chemical dependency," said attorney Josh Tuchscherer from Meshbesher and Spence.
Tuchscherer points out how his client, Tory Hart, warned Dakota County all along the way.
"My son is not safe with her. How much damage is she allowed to inflict in his life? How is this even allowed to happen? Who is protecting Eli?" Tory wrote in January, according to the civil complaint.
"He and other family members warned social services about Eli's safety," Tuchscherer said.
Thaler's own father, George Thaler, spoke at a November 2021 court hearing, warning the judge not to return Eli to his daughter.
"I'm very, very, very, very concerned for Eli," George Thaler said, according to a court transcript. "I'm terrified about Julissa. She's got many arrests for assault and dangerous behavior, put Eli in very dangerous [situations.] I'm just saying there's a very, very long history. He's got high needs, a very good kid. I don't think she's capable of giving him what he needs by any stretch, and that's it."
The lawsuit claims that Thaler may have pulled the trigger, but the failures of Dakota County were a "proximate cause" of Eli's death.
"Much is known and much is yet to be learned about the decision-making that went into the recommendation to return Eli to his mother," Tuchscherer said.
The Dakota County Attorney's Office, which is representing the social workers, said they won't comment on pending litigation.
Tuchsherer says a Minnesota Supreme Court ruling from November 2021 made it possible to sue county social services in cases like this.
That case, Jepsen v. Pope County, arose out of the death of 4-year-old Eric Parker Dean at the hands of his father's girlfriend after at least seven reports of child abuse from different sources. The trustee for Dean's heirs filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Pope County and three child protection workers.
Thaler is still in jail on her murder charge, receiving mental health evaluations. She's due back in court in two weeks.
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