A Case of The System becoming part of the Problem

Foster mom had trouble in Michigan

By Paul Pinkham and Veronica Chapin
Times-Union staff writers,

A Jacksonville woman charged with murder and child abuse after the July death of her foster daughter had faced abuse allegations involving foster children before moving to Florida that were missed by state child welfare workers.

Florida counselors never asked about complaints in Michigan — where the woman previously was licensed — until after the slaying, said an administrator with the agency that oversees foster care in the Detroit area. And because of confidentiality laws, the agency couldn’t disclose anything beyond what Florida authorities requested.

A spokesman for the Florida Department of Children and Families said agency policy didn’t require counselors to ask for information about prior complaints out-of-state before licensing a foster home. And a top DCF administrator said yesterday the additional information, while it might have caused agency workers to take another look, probably wouldn’t have changed the decision to license the woman and her husband.

The Michigan documents, obtained this week by the Times-Union, show that in 1994, Lena and Keith Cumberbatch violated a Michigan foster care regulation saying foster parents should be of suitable temperament to care for children and understand their needs. They also were ordered to receive training on the effects of abuse and neglect on children and in understanding and disciplining foster children.

Foster mother case timeline

Seventeen-month-old Latiana Hamilton died in her Jacksonville foster home July 18. Nine days later, her foster mother, Lena Cumberbatch, was charged with her murder. Here are the events that occurred before her death.

September 1992: Lena and Keith Cumberbatch issued foster care license in Michigan.

June 1993: Michigan child welfare workers investigate the home after a complaint about a foster child being malnourished and in need of medical care. The complaint is unsubstantiated, but a caseworker recommends the couple attend training on the effects of child abuse and neglect on child development and that their license be decreased from three to two foster children.

March 1994: Michigan child welfare workers investigate complaint of improper discipline being imposed on foster children in the home. The complaint is substantiated, and the Cumberbatches are ordered to attend training on discipline and parenting special needs children.

December 1995: The couple voluntarily surrender their Michigan foster care license. No explanation is given.

June 1997: The couple move to Jacksonville with their four children.

November 2000: The couple apply for a Florida foster care license.

December: Florida Department of Children and Families counselor asks for initial home study and training records from Michigan but not records of complaints.

January: Sharon Hamilton arrested on drug charge. Her 11-month-old daughter, Latiana, eventually is placed in state custody.

February: The Cumberbatches are licensed as foster parents.

May: Latiana Hamilton and her 3-year-old brother are placed with the Cumberbatches.

July 18: Latiana dies in the bathtub at the Cumberbatch home. An autopsy shows blunt trauma to the head and drowning.

July 20: DCF counselor requests complaint records from Michigan.

July 23: DCF administrator directs child licensure staff in Jacksonville district to request records on complaints and concerns as part of the licensing process for prospective foster parents who were licensed in other states.

July 27: Lena Cumberbatch charged with murder. Nine abuse counts are added later.

Aug. 6: DCF releases its file on the Cumberbatch home to the Times-Union pursuant to a public records request. It doesn’t include any of the complaints from Michigan.

Aug. 7: DCF receives records of complaints from Michigan, an agency spokesman says.

Aug. 21: DCF spokeswoman says agency’s background check on the Cumberbatches revealed no problems.

Source: Ennis Center for Children; Florida Department of Children and Families; Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office

The Cumberbatches voluntarily surrendered their Michigan foster care license in 1995 and moved to Jacksonville in 1997. DCF issued them a foster care license in February.

One of their four foster children, 17-month-old Latiana Hamilton, died of blunt trauma to the head and drowning July 18, police said. Lena Cumberbatch, 36, was arrested July 27. Keith Cumberbatch wasn’t charged.

“It is shockingly incompetent but sadly not surprising that they [DCF] would not have bothered to ask for the entire licensing file,” said Karen Gievers, a Tallahassee attorney spearheading a statewide class action lawsuit seeking to overhaul Florida’s foster care system. “That’s the kind of information they should get. …. This little girl paid the ultimate price.”

In 1993 and ’94, Michigan authorities investigated several complaints against the Cumberbatches from Child Protective Services workers and former foster children, the documents show. Names, ages and genders are blacked out, but the allegations include:

Feces smeared on a child’s face after an accidental bowel movement.

Children being lined up against a wall and beaten with a belt for wetting their pants.

One of the parents, the documents don’t say which, chewing the children’s eggs then putting them in the children’s mouths.

A young child being locked in a dark basement and told “the monster is going to get you if you are bad.”

A child subsisting on a daily diet of milk and cereal.

In addition, investigators found Lena Cumberbatch’s “assertiveness can turn to aggressiveness,” and the staff had difficulty communicating with the parents.

The investigation records say one of the Cumberbatches admitted chewing eggs and putting them in one child’s mouth and threatening another child with “the monster.” But the foster parent denied locking the child in the basement or whipping any children with a belt. The parent said the child who had the accidental bowel movement smeared feces on his or her own face.

One parent “didn’t understand the difference between feeding the infant vegetables vs. milk/cereal, as they both provide nutrition,” the records show. Investigators didn’t substantiate a finding that the Cumberbatches were responsible for the child’s ill health but recommended a reduction in the number of children they were licensed for and training in the effects of abuse and neglect on children.

The documents don’t explain why the parents gave up their license.

The Cumberbatches told Michigan authorities in 1993 they only wanted one foster child because they had three children of their own.

At the time of Latiana’s death, there were four foster children and four of their own children living in the Cumberbatches’ Arlington home.

A DCF counselor made two requests for records from Michigan, said Sue Siwek, vice president of Ennis Center for Children in Detroit. The first, in December, while the Cumberbatches were seeking a Florida license, asked only for the Michigan agency’s initial home study and records on training. The counselor didn’t ask for records of complaints, Siwek said.

“We would have sent it,” she said. “We sent them what they asked for, and that’s all we were allowed to send under the law.”

Siwek said the second request, which included information on complaints, was received July 20, two days after Latiana’s death. Siwek said the counselor told Ennis officials he needed the additional records because DCF was being audited and didn’t mention a death.

Lee Johnson, DCF district administrator for the Jacksonville area, said agency guidelines didn’t require counselors to ask about complaints and concerns at the time the Cumberbatches were being licensed.

But they are now, at least in the Jacksonville area. A July 23 memo from a Jacksonville DCF administrator directs the child licensure staff to specifically ask and report about complaints and concerns in other jurisdictions.

The Michigan documents “obviously led to the policy change, but …. I don’t think it would have changed the ultimate decision to license them,” Johnson said.

A DCF spokeswoman in Tallahassee said the agency’s inspector general is investigating how Latiana’s case was handled.

The documents weren’t included in a case file released by DCF to the Times-Union on Aug. 6 after a public records request. DCF spokesman Allan Kelley said they weren’t received until Aug. 7.

But as late as Aug. 21, a DCF spokeswoman told the newspaper a background check revealed no problems with the Cumberbatches.

Lena Cumberbatch also is charged with nine other counts of abuse, some of which involve having her children abuse the foster children, according to court documents.

She is in the Duval County jail awaiting trial, and her lawyer couldn’t be reached. Keith Cumberbatch declined to comment yesterday.


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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. This is a national disgrace. When is America going to wake up and see that the foster care system is just as corrupt and just as out of control as CPS is. Children are 11 times more likely to be abused, 7 times more likely to be killed, and 28 times more likely to be sexually abused in foster homes than in their real homes. Yet no one wants to do anything about it. This Every Child Matters campaign does not mean Every Child Matters. They target only birth parents. The real truth is just too ugly to face, I guess. Google Hassani Campbell and that’s a prime example of what I’m talking about. Do some research, America. I’ll shout this from the rooftops if I have to in order to get the general population to listen to me. CPS became corrupt in 1997 when the Adoption and Safe Families Act was signed into law and they drug the foster care system down with it. Feel free to visit my blog (cpsasystemoutofcontrol.blogspot.com) and search it for foster child abuses and deaths. Maybe then you’ll believe us.

    Thank you for bringing this to light. This is a fantastic blog and I’m grateful to you for all that you do to raise awareness of the abuses within the system.

  2. Powerful post.

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