Since the moment she was born 10 weeks premature, with cocaine rippling through her 21/2-pound body, Lilly Manning has been the recipient of other people's poor choices, bad judgment and terrible timing.
Now, the 19-year-old woman who escaped torture in a south Sacramento home is seeking retribution.
Last week, lawyers for Manning filed a claim for damages against Sacramento County's Child Protective Services and the Sacramento City Unified School District.
The claim, a precursor to any lawsuit, alleges child welfare workers and school employees failed to protect her from the violent household into which she was adopted.
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"Lilly and her siblings were kept in a virtual prisoner-of-war camp where they were repeatedly, systematically and sadistically beaten and tortured by their adoptive mother, Lillian Manning-Horvath, and her husband, Joseph Horvath," according to the claim.
The legal matter has opened the curtain on Lilly Manning's past, and how she and her four siblings wound up in their great-aunt's care, only to endure savage beatings, tongue-lashings and death threats.
Confidential records recently released by the county reveal how one CPS social worker aggressively promoted the Manning children's adoption in the 1990s. The worker lavished praise on Lillian Manning-Horvath, while dismissing alarms raised by others, according to CPS and Juvenile Court documents.
The claim also singles out six workers associated with the Sacramento City Unified School District for allegedly failing to report their own suspicions of abuse, as required by law. The workers include a teacher, a school nurse, a Head Start coordinator, a vice principal, an assistant principal and an attendance clerk.
"The failure of all these mandated reporters to file (abuse) reports – it just drives me nuts," said Sacramento attorney Joseph C. George, who is representing Lilly Manning.
Yet again, timing and judgment will play a critical role in the case – for both Lilly Manning and for the government entities she seeks to sue.
In California, government is generally immune from civil liability, with exceptions. Timeliness also plays a key role, because a claim involving death or injury must be brought within six months of the alleged harm.
Manning was 15 when she escaped in October 2007 from a locked closet in the home of her adoptive mother.
The teenager, who suffered the bulk of the abuse, was stabbed, burned and beaten with 2-by-4s, broomsticks, shoes, a hammer and a swinging padlock. After she fled, the secrets tumbled out as doctors discovered a young body ravaged with more than 100 scars and injuries.
The Bee has chronicled her story since July, when the Manning children's adoptive mother was sentenced to a mental hospital and life in state prison. Horvath was convicted by a jury in 2009 and sentenced to consecutive life terms.
Now, a Superior Court judge may ultimately decide if Manning, who turns 20 in January, can pursue civil damages.
At issue: Does her claim have merit? And even if the government agrees that it does, was it filed in time?
"I feel like this is something I should do," said Lilly Manning, who returned to Sacramento last month after a short stay on the East Coast. "Somebody should pay. Hopefully this is a message to everybody to do their job right."
'The only mom I knew'
Laura McCasland, spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees CPS, said the county would not comment on pending litigation.
School district spokesman Gabe Ross issued a statement Friday saying:
"Anyone who has heard Lilly Manning's story would find it both tragic and heartbreaking. The district and its legal representatives are appropriately evaluating and responding to the claims filed by the Manning family. The safety and security of our students and employees is a top priority for SCUSD."
Manning's attorneys also have filed a claim on behalf of her younger brother, Kenyata Manning. George, a lawyer and psychologist who has worked with numerous child-abuse victims, said the core of the Lilly Manning case is the number of public workers who suspected abuse but did not formally report it.
In her claim, attorneys contend that the young woman suffers from Stockholm syndrome and was unable to recognize that she was a victim – or take any legal action – until her adoptive mother was sentenced this year.
The claim defines Stockholm syndrome as a "psychiatric disease and psychological phenomenon where hostages express empathy and have positive feelings toward their captors."
"Lilly's adoptive mother was viewed as the person who was in control of her basic needs for survival and for her life itself," according to the claim. "In short, Lillian Manning-Horvath was viewed by Lilly as giving Lilly life simply by not killing her."
In interviews with The Bee last summer, Manning described her conflicted feelings about her adoptive mother and acknowledged making efforts to stay in touch with her.
"She was the only mom I really knew," Manning said in July.
Others to blame
But Manning also said she believes that others bear responsibility for her torturous upbringing.
Confidential Juvenile Court documents obtained earlier this year by The Bee revealed that four different agencies visited the family at least 11 times on reports of suspected abuse or neglect in a five-year period, but did not move to protect Manning or her siblings. Numerous attempts by the children to get help went unrecognized or unheeded.
The newly released CPS records show how the agency – and one social worker in particular – ramrodded the adoption, despite a series of red flags.
The five children were taken into protective custody in February 1994 after being found "abandoned by their mother in a filthy crack house" littered with feces, used condoms, crack pipes and an open 40-ounce beer bottle, according to a CPS report to the Juvenile Court.
CPS placed Lilly Manning and her two brothers "on a trial basis" with their great-aunt a month later, and the two older sisters joined them seven months after that. At the time, Manning's home in North Highlands was found by CPS to be "appropriate for placement."
Lillian Manning renamed all five children and eventually proceeded with adoption after the CPS caseworker filed numerous glowing reports about the home.
In one confidential court document, the woman who later smashed her adoptive daughter's fingers with a hammer and burned her with boiling water and a curling iron was described as "capable, experienced and energetic."
The lead social worker who pressed for their adoption repeatedly fended off criticism of the elder Lillian Manning, describing in reports how the children thrived in the "loving environment."
"Their caretaker, Lillian Manning, manages the seemingly herculean task of caring for these children with great strength and a great sense of humor," the CPS worker wrote in July 1995. "The children are all well-bonded with her. They hover around her, and their interactions are laced with affection."
The social worker continued to defend the household, even after a social worker for Sacramento Child Advocates raised "numerous concerns" about the children's safety.
The second social worker, acting on behalf of the children's court-appointed attorneys, said one child had informed her that the caregiver was using corporal punishment. And she expressed concern that Lillian Manning was requiring the children to "sleep on the living room floor so she could monitor them."
"The minors' caretaker, Ms. Manning, has displayed a lack of insight regarding the special needs of these minors," according to the social worker's 1996 declaration to the court.
"Ms. Manning becomes defensive when concerns are raised, and has made statements about wanting to give the minors back to the Dept. because it is too much hassle now."
The social worker complained that her concerns "went unheard or were discounted" by CPS. The worker requested and got a mediation with the parties, but documents show there was little resolution – and the adoption went forward.
Alarms go unanswered
Health workers, too, raised alarms about the home.
In 1997, Lilly Manning's 6-year-old sister was examined at the UC Davis Medical Center, where a nurse identified injuries consistent with battered child syndrome, medical records show.
A physician who viewed the semi-circular "closed loop" injuries on the girl's body said they were "classical for ones inflicted by an electrical cord," according to the doctor's notes.
The physician did not believe the story that the girl had been struck with a coat hanger by her older sister, saying the injuries were not consistent with that scenario.
However, the CPS worker continued to champion the adoption and told the court the abuse allegations were unsubstantiated. The social worker said she "feels strongly that this (adoption) plan is in the children's best interest."
Documents show that the social worker had been told a week earlier about previous abuse in the household. A counselor seeing the family told the CPS worker in a June 1997 letter that Lillian Manning "does not hit any of the children and has not done so since 1994 when she was using a plastic spoon, on occasion, to discipline the children."
In the newly filed government claim, Lilly Manning's attorney cited the spoon beating as one in a series of allegations that fell on deaf ears.
The claim also singles out six workers associated with the Sacramento City Unified School District.
As reported earlier in The Bee, the school workers are described in documents as having varying degrees of concern and suspicion about the Manning home. At one point, the school nurse and a Head Start coordinator scheduled a home visit to follow up on Lilly Manning's numerous scratches but left the home without seeing her. Neither filed a child abuse report, according to the claim.