Family Settles With State In Son’s Soccer Goal Death

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The state Department of Human Services has reached a $375,000 settlement with the Benton County family whose son died after an unanchored soccer goal fell on him at a Bentonville school.

Arkansas legislators on March 6 denied a $1 million claim to the Nelson family for their son, Jonathan, but the state on Friday announced the settlement agreement.

It’s been more than two years since 9-year-old Jonathan Nelson died.

DHS also agreed to review its policies concerning the safety of children around playground equipment, according to the state Department of Human Services.

For the Nelson family, the money settlement comes second to DHS' assurances about child safety policies, the family's attorney told 5NEWS. He said the family wanted any settlement to include steps preventing children from being hurt around equipment like their son.

"We can think of no better way to honor our son than to protect other hildren in our state as they do what Jonathan loved best," the Nelson family writes in a statement released Friday.

A claims subcommittee of the state Legislature recommended last week that the family be awarded $1 million from the state Department of Human Services, which the parents claim is ultimately responsible for anchoring soccer goals. The Legislature’s Joint Budget Committee rejected the recommendation Wednesday.

DHS released a statement through its spokeswoman Wednesday that states, “As we said before, this was a tragic situation, but it didn’t happen at a DHS licensed program or property that was required to be inspected by DHS.”

The Nelson family has traveled numerous times to Little Rock to attend hearings. They visited the claims subcommittee in December and in February when the subcommittee voted in their favor. The family was also present during Wednesday’s Joint Budget Committee hearing.

“It doesn’t seem like there’s true resolution, and we as a family through this process are looking for closure,” Nelson said.

Sen. Bart Hester, R- Cave Springs, is a member of the Joint Budget Committee. He said the wrongful death claim failed to pass by just a few votes. The $1 million recommendation needed 29 votes to pass, but came up short, 23-7.

Hester, who voted for the $1 million recommendation, said he supports the family and that it’s a difficult process for the state to pay money in a settlement.

“Typically, I would say 95 out of 100 times, the committee goes with the subcommittee’s recommendation,” Hester said. “But this time, it’s a large amount of money and they just weren’t comfortable with it this morning.”

The claim heads back to the subcommittee, which will then make another recommendation to the Joint Budget Committee.

“We decided instead of killing it, we’re going to send it back to subcommittee,” Hester said.

Hester said not all 56 members cast their vote.

“We’re going to talk to more members and decide if it’s a lesser value that we get everybody to vote for it and agree on it, or if we just didn’t have enough people there,” Hester said.

The Nelson family remembers Jonathan’s energetic, sweet and loving personality. Wednesday is their older son’s Tyler 16th birthday, and since the brothers shared the same birthday month, they used to celebrate it together. Jonathan’s birthday was March 21.

“That’s one of the hard things that we have to deal with on a year-to-year basis, let alone the daily things that we miss about him and the void that’s left in our lives,” Nelson said.

The Arkansas Department of Human Services' statement on the settlement:

The Arkansas Department of Human Services (DHS) has reached a compromise and settlement agreement with the family of Jonathan Nelson.  This settlement has been reached in an attempt to bring closure to this family and this matter.

As part of this settlement agreement and compromise, no later than June 1, 2013, the Department of Human Services Division of Child Care and Early Childhood Education will:

1)     Review the Rules for child care facilities regarding clear identification of DHS certified playground areas;

2)     Review the Rules for child care facility playground and playground equipment safety;

3)     Implement a practice of photographing identified playground areas;

4)     Establish criteria for the placement of physical barriers between identified playground areas and potentially unsafe areas or equipment that children may access from identified areas;

5)     Identify additional areas where existing rules may be amended to enhance safety;

6)     Publish for public comment under the Arkansas Administrative Procedure Act proposed amendments, additions, or both, to the rules for Child Care Facilities.

7)     Train/retrain staff in safety inspections; and

8)     Prepare and schedule safety training and technical assistance for Arkansas child care providers.

Additionally, within the next few weeks, Tonya Russell the Director of the Division of Child Care and Early Childhood Education, will sit down with Nathan and Sarah Nelson to discuss, without limitation, playground safety.

DHS extends our condolences to the Nelson family for the tragic loss of their son, Jonathan.  DHS is committed to all children in the State of Arkansas having a safe and healthy place to play and grow.  It is our department’s hope that this settlement and compromise will further enhance child safety.