I-Team: Agencies blame each other after child murder

I-Team

LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — The family of a murdered child was awarded a $3 million judgement in a wrongful death case. The I-Team has been following Abygaile Bennett’s story and recently reported the killer agreed to a plea deal. Now, more details are emerging on a battle between two agencies that were supposed to protect the child.

Abygaile was failed on many levels. Her father, Justin Bennett, killed her, and her mother is accused of allowing her abuse. Two agencies allowed her case to fall through the cracks.

WARNING: The content in this report is disturbing.

Bennett recently agreed to a plea deal after admitting to murdering his 3-year-old daughter in 2016.

Her maternal grandmother, Bernadine Morimoto, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the agencies that are supposed to protect abused children.

In 2019, Clark County, which runs Child Protective Services, agreed to pay the Morimoto family $100,000.

Now, HopeLink, an agency that CPS outsourced the case to when Abygaile was in danger, is expected to pay the family $3 million.

“I wish I could have done things differently,” said Morimoto.

She sat down for an exclusive interview with the I-Team in 2018. Morimoto recalled trying to sound the alarm to her daughter Korie, who is the children’s mother, to police and to CPS that Bennett was abusing Abygaile and her two sisters.

Korie said she was recording incidents to eventually get custody of the children. In one such incident, Bennett was seen forcing a hot pepper in Abygaile’s mouth as punishment.

In January of 2016, two Metro Police officers failed to make a report after they were called. CPS was notified, and then, they handed the case to HopeLink, an outside agency that mainly deals with low-level non-abuse cases.

The HopeLink case manager, James Hardee, testified in court he referred Bennett to parenting classes. HopeLink expressed concern to CPS, but manager Lisa Gibson refused to take the case back, according to Hardee.

Hardee said Bennett was difficult to reach and uncooperative. In April, the case was closed, deemed to have no present and impending danger.

More than two months later, Abygaile was dead.

The 3-year-old was beaten so badly, her heart exploded, and she was suffering from a broken back and broken ribs in the days before she died.

In the civil lawsuit, CPS blames HopeLink, saying the agency agreed to take the case, knowing there were allegations of abuse, failed to designate a supervisor to review case notes and failed to report and document information.

An example of failure to report and document information includes bruises on Abygaile’s head, spine and back from a belt whipping by Bennett, which CPS alleges HopeLink knew about.

Now, money from the judgement against HopeLink is intended to go to the two surviving sisters of Abygaile.

“I miss her terribly, and I know she’s safe now,” lamented Morimoto.

CPS does not comment on specific cases, but a CPS spokesman did tell the I-Team HopeLink no longer handles CPS cases. We also reached out to HopeLink and attorneys for the agency and are waiting for a response.

A sentencing for Bennett is coming up, and prosecutors will recommend 50 years to life.

The children’s mother faces charges for allowing the abuse, with negotiations underway.

Bennett’s mother, the paternal grandmother of the children, is also charged for failing to protect the girls. Her trial is set for next month.

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