The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services has requested that a judge toss a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the estate of a 12-year-old Omaha boy strangled by his mother in 2009.
The Attorney General’s Office asked a Douglas County judge Wednesday to grant a motion for summary judgment, which would effectively throw out the lawsuit. Judge Mark Ashford took the requested motion under advisement.
Michael Belitz’s estate claims that Health and Human Services failed to act on repeated warnings from not only Michael’s mother but also other family members who were concerned about Michael’s welfare and believed his life was in jeopardy. The suit alleges that Health and Human Services acted negligently by failing to properly investigate allegations of neglect and abuse as well as failing to respond to calls from the boy’s mom and others who reported that Michael had been neglected and abused.
The big question waiting to be answered is whether the state had a duty to act on those warnings to protect Michael from his mother. The state says it didn’t have a duty to protect Michael, while lawyers for the boy say the state absolutely should have intervened after receiving phone calls from Michael’s mother, Angela Manns.
Before Michael’s death, Manns left a voice mail for a Health and Human Services caseworker asking to place Michael in foster care.
“It feels like I’m spiraling downward, so I’m concerned for him and me,” Manns told the caseworker in a message.
Agency officials said the caseworker tried to return Manns’ call, but that voice mail wasn’t available. Manns called HHS again days later. The caseworker called Manns back, telling her in a voice mail to contact the agency’s child abuse and neglect hotline.
Authorities found Michael Belitz’s decomposed body at his northeast home in a bathtub of water and kitty litter in 2009. Manns admitted that she strangled her son with a phone cord as he slept. She then tried to dissolve his body in the tub. Manns pleaded no contest to the second-degree murder of her son and is to be released from prison in October 2026.
The state argues that it couldn’t have known based on those phone calls to Health and Human Services that Manns planned to kill her son.
“Any reasonable reading of the transcript of that phone call does not give rise to a belief that physical abuse of any kind was imminent or even about to happen,” Assistant Attorney General Dave Lopez said in court Wednesday. “There is no way what happened could have been foreseeable.”
Additionally, Lopez said, the state didn’t have an obligation to step in because the boy wasn’t a state ward and Manns hadn’t been charged with abusing him.
“I think there is some pretty significant policy ramifications that would flow from a finding of liability of the state’s part in these circumstances,” Lopez said. “It would basically require the state to become a guarantor of safety — to provide guaranteed security any time there is even a hint that a child has been abused.”
Mandy Strigenz, an attorney for Michael’s estate, pointed to the state’s law on mandatory reporting of child abuse, which requires people who suspect abuse or neglect to report it to authorities. Manns herself cried out for help, Strigenz said, and Health and Human Services ignored her pleas despite department policies instructing employees to act.
“The department is essentially Child Protective Services,” Strigenz said. “It is their duty to protect the children of this state. It would be proper for the court to determine that the duty of care was owed to Michael Belitz.”
After Michael’s death, Health and Human Services changed its protocol on how to deal with child welfare concerns. Caseworkers who receive calls related to a child’s safety are now required to alert or transfer the caller to a Child Protective Services hotline. If repeated calls go unanswered, a caseworker or police officer is supposed to personally check on the child.
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