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Sonoma County civil jury awards nearly $25 million to children sexually abused by foster father

The Press Democrat - 12/7/2023

Dec. 7—A Santa Rosa foster agency and a convicted felon must pay nearly $25 million in damages to three foster children he sexually abused five years ago, a civil jury has ruled.

The decision came in Sonoma County Civil Court, where the victims filed a lawsuit in May 2019 against Alternative Family Services and Mark Zapata Martinez.

The verdict capped testimony that began Oct. 19 and lasted about 20 days before Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Patrick Broderick.

Attorneys for the children contend the agency placed the two girls and a boy in Martinez's Santa Rosa home without properly vetting him or performing sufficient inspections after the children came to live with him.

"This case, and this verdict, is of public importance as this company places many foster children across numerous Bay Area counties every day," attorney Scott Montgomery said. "It supervises and approves foster homes just like this one and, according to testimony in this lawsuit, no changes were made as a result of what occurred in this case.

On Dec. 1, jurors ruled Alternative Family Services is responsible for about 60% of the nearly $25 million. It comes out to about $18 million, with Martinez's share at about $6 million.

Alternative Family Services serves the counties of Alameda, Butte, Contra Costa, El Dorado, Kern, Lake, Marin, Napa, Placer, Sacramento, San Francisco, San Joaquin, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Solano, Sonoma, Stanislaus, Sutter, Yolo and Yuba.

An attorney for the agency, Daniel Friedenthal, said they are sympathetic toward the children but dispute allegations Alternative Family Services was negligent.

He said Martinez and his wife had fostered children in the past and had no history of abuse that his clients could have uncovered.

Friedenthal said the decision would be appealed.

"Our position is without any actual knowledge and no red flags being missed, no red flags being presented, Alternative Family Services didn't do anything wrong," he said.

According to a trial brief filed ahead of Martinez's conviction, the children's father lost custody after they were found alone inside his car outside Graton Resort & Casino in April 2018.

At the time, the girls were 7 and 2 years old. Their brother was 5.

The agency placed them into Martinez's home, where abuse occurred from April 16, 2018 through June 25, 2018, the children's attorneys said.

According to a trial brief filed by the Sonoma County District Attorney's Office in 2020, the eldest child, identified in court records as Jane Doe 1, reported the abuse to her father during a supervised visit on June 25, 2018.

She said it started the second day they lived at the home.

Martinez was charged in October 2018 with 11 counts related to child abuse. In March 2020, he pleaded no contest to one count each of sex acts with a child age 10 or younger, and lewd or lascivious acts with a child under the age of 14.

He was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.

In a statement to The Press Democrat, Sonoma County Human Services Department Director Angela Struckmann said officials are "saddened" by what happened to the children.

"While AFS has been a valuable partner in the shared work of placing foster children in homes, the county has been in the process of examining its contractual relationship with AFS to determine whether any changes need to be made moving forward to ensure AFS complies with its legal requirements and adheres to the comprehensive state regulations that apply to foster family agencies to make certain that children placed in foster family agency-licensed homes are as safe as possible."

You can reach Staff Writer Colin Atagi at colin.atagi@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @colin_atagi

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