DHS, family reach settlement over son’s death


LITTLE ROCK — The state Department of Human Services announced Friday it had reached a $375,000 settlement with the family of a Bentonville boy who was killed when a soccer goal fell on him at school in 2011.

The agreement was reached just two days after the legislative Joint Budget Committee rejected a recommended $1 million award to the boy’s parents, Nathan and Sarah Nelson.

“DHS extends our condolences to the Nelson family for the tragic loss of their son, Jonathan,” the agency said in a news release announcing the agreement. “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.”

Along with a $375,000 payment, DHS agreed to review its procedures regarding inspections of state-certified playground areas and to institute some reforms.

Also, within the next few weeks, Tonya Russell, director of DHS’ Division of Child Care and Early Childhood Education, will meet with Nathan and Sarah Nelson to discuss playground safety.

“It’s been very hard on the Nelsons, and the last two weeks it’s been excruciating, but in essence we feel like today that with this settlement we received more than we could have with the claim award of $1 million,” said Sean Keith, the Nelsons’ attorney. “The family … got several steps that the department has to take that are going to satisfy, or at least make us feel better that this is not going to happen to another child.

“It’s an extensive list. I couldn’t be more happy and proud for my clients.”

Nine-year-old Jonathan Nelson died after being struck by the soccer goal on Jan. 26, 2011, during recess at Elm Tree Elementary School in Bentonville.

The family originally filed a $3 million claim against DHS, which was rejected by the state Claims Commission last year.

Last month, the Claims Subcommittee of the Joint Budget Committee found DHS liable in the boy’s death and recommended the $1 million award.

Keith argued during a Feb. 26 hearing that the school has sovereign immunity, so the family filed a $3 million wrongful death claim against the state because the soccer goal was on a playground that, along with the school, had been inspected and licensed by DHS as an after school child-care center.

On Wednesday, the Joint Budget Committee voted 23-7 on the subcommittee recommendation. It needed 29 votes for approval.

Nathan and Sarah Nelson released a statement Friday afternoon saying they were relieved and satisfied the ordeal was now over.

“Today, we finally have some measure of comfort in knowing that DHS has agreed to institute a review of the policies and procedures which were previously ignored,” the statement said. “We are able to go one step further in our journey towards healing. The pain of losing Jonathan will never go away, but we find peace in knowing that we are working to prevent other families from experiencing this same tragedy with their child.”

Under the agreement, DHS will, before June 1:

—Review the rules for child care facilities regarding clear identification of DHS certified playground area, along with rules for child care facility playground and playground equipment safety.

—Implement a practice of photographing identified playground areas.

—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.

—Identify additional areas where existing rules may be amended to enhance safety.

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

—Train or retrain staff in safety inspections.

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