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Trial starts in lawsuit against Catholic Charities involving 4-year-old's death

jay deratany
Matthew Richmond
Ideastream Public Media
Jay Deratany, attorney for the estate of Jordan Rodriguez, gives his opening statement on March 28, 2024. Rodriguez's family was one of Catholic Charities' clients when he died.

Opening arguments were held Thursday in the lawsuit over the tragic 2017 death of 4-year-old Jordan Rodriguez. The issue in the case will be whether the defendant, Catholic Charities, bears responsibility for the child’s death.

The Cuyahoga County coroner found that Rodriguez suffered from extreme malnutrition and broken bones on his arm and ribs that went untreated for weeks.

Catholic Charities had a contract from Cuyahoga County to visit Rodriguez’s home twice each month and give his mother, Larissa Rodriguez, parenting advice. The contract was part of the Bright Beginnings program and Nancy Caraballo was assigned to the Rodriguez family.

“They owed him a duty, they owed him care. But not only did the case workers stop writing about him, so did the supervisors,” said Jay Deratany, the attorney for Jordan Rodriguez’s estate.

Jordan Rodriguez’s body was found in a shallow grave in the backyard of his home on Cleveland’s West Side in 2017. His mother and her boyfriend, Christopher Rodriguez, pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and endangering children. They were sentenced to 25 and 28 years in prison.

Caraballo and Larissa Rodriguez also received jail sentences for food stamp fraud – Rodriguez was selling her food stamps to Caraballo for cash.

During his opening remarks, Catholic Charities attorney Thomas Mannion said the blame belongs to Larissa and Christopher Rodriguez.

“Quite frankly, Jordan gave up. Do you blame him?” said Mannion. “Nobody deserves a life like this. But put the blame where the blame is deserved.”

Lawyers for Catholic Charities argued that Jordan was not included in its contract with the county, which covered other children in the house. Jordan had developmental disabilities and was handled through a different county program, known as early intervention.

“They had service coordinators, they had social workers, they had a team of therapists and specialists. No relation to Catholic Charities,” said Mannion. “He was assigned a team. One, two, three, four, five, six people were on his team.”

Anticipating that argument, Deratany said during his opening that the Catholic Charities contract required that it offer its services to the family, not just the named children.

He argued the agency should have made 96 visits during Jordan’s life, but never filed a report or made a call to the police or the county's Department of Child and Family Services about the child’s deteriorating health.

Deratany told the jury he found 43 instances where Caraballo cut-and-pasted information from one home visit about the cleanliness of the home and the health of the children living there into the next report.

He also pointed to an instance in July of 2017, just months before Rodriguez’s death, where Caraballo noted that the home was low on food.

“Surely, they did something. Sound the alarm. Ring a bell. Go to the home, supervisors. Call a meeting, supervisors, and say, ‘Wait,this family is running out of food. Did you see Jordan?’” said Deratany. “Was there a system in place? No.”

Catholic Charities argued its program was voluntary. The agency's home visitors were not licensed social workers.

And several other entities — including the Cuyahoga County Department of Child and Family Services, Cleveland Metropolitan School District, Cleveland Police and doctors at MetroHealth — could have intervened to save Rodriguez’s life, but never did.

In 2016, Larissa Rodriguez began keeping Jordan out of the view of others. In September of that year, she began telling the school district that he had gone to live with his father in Texas. She told Child and Family Services the same thing in September. And in Spring of 2017, she began telling Caraballo the same thing.

The trial continued Thursday with testimony from Catholic Charities leadership and is expected to last about two weeks.


Matthew Richmond is a reporter/producer focused on criminal justice issues at Ideastream Public Media.