Published Sunday, November 4, 2001
Abuse, neglect rampant; foster homes overcrowded
By Paul Pinkham
Times-Union staff writer,
She was a millennium baby, arriving amid all the hopes and dreams a new century brings.
In reality, Latiana Nakia Hamilton never had a chance.
Born Feb. 2, 2000, into Jacksonville’s dark underbelly of homelessness, domestic violence and crack cocaine, she was dropped into an overworked foster care system plagued by abuse, overcrowding and neglect.
Latiana was 17 months old when she was beaten and drowned in an Arlington bathtub in July. Barely old enough to walk. Not old enough to talk. And far too young to understand the implications of her death.
“The death of this toddler must be a wake-up call to the citizens of Florida about the dangerous conditions facing all children who enter foster care in our state. … Other tragedies like Latiana’s death are waiting to happen throughout the state,” said Deborah Schroth of Florida Legal Services’ Jacksonville office.
Schroth is one of two dozen attorneys working on a proposed class action lawsuit filed last year on behalf of Florida children they say were mistreated in foster care.
Indeed, Florida’s rate of maltreatment in foster care — about one in every 11 children — is 15 times higher than the national standard and three times the state goal, according to hundreds of pages of government documents and reports analyzed by the Times-Union. It has increased each of the past three years; at the same time, the state’s child welfare budget has risen $180 million.
State officials call Latiana’s death a “tragedy” but say government can’t be expected to fix all that’s wrong with child protective services in Florida.
“You can’t solve the problem entirely,” Gov. Jeb Bush said in August, shortly after Latiana’s foster mother was charged with murder. “There is no way for the government to replace wholesome family life. By its very nature, it’s a tragic area.”
Mike Watkins, family safety director for the Florida Department of Children and Families, said the abuse levels are misleading because of the way they are counted.
No level of abuse in foster care is acceptable, but “there will always be some small percentage of children that are harmed by caregivers” and Latiana’s case “is a horrendous example of that,” Watkins said.
“We have a tremendous number of dedicated foster parents that do a good job every day,” said Watkins, who has ordered a review of every foster care abuse or neglect case in the state. “Nine out of 10 — they’re doing extraordinary work.”
But Schroth and others say Latiana’s brutal slaying is symptomatic of a flawed system. Her foster home was one of hundreds across Florida listed as being over capacity by the DCF, and there were indications of prior problems with the foster parents that weren’t caught in the screening process.
Even in the best of systems, maltreatment occurs — including physical, emotional and sexual abuse and neglect — “but not at the rate it happens in Florida,” said Rose Firestein, senior litigator with Children’s Rights, a New York non-profit group that seeks child welfare reform through legal action around the country.
“The level of safety in Florida foster care is remarkably and unacceptably poor,” Firestein said.
Foster parents open their homes to abused or neglected children in need of safety, love and nurturing, and, when the time is right, let them go, whether the child lives with them for a month or for more than a year. To learn about becoming a foster parent, call (904) 723-2049 or 1-800-981-KIDS.
Latiana Hamilton had spent most of her few months of life living in Jacksonville’s homeless and battered women’s shelters.
But when her mother didn’t pick up Latiana and her 3-year-old brother at day care last fall, the state stepped in. The siblings became two of the 1,200 Northeast Florida children in foster care.
Latiana’s father, Leonard Mixson, says he would have taken her in but DCF never contacted him. He said he didn’t learn Latiana was in foster care until her mother was arrested in January on charges of prostitution and selling crack cocaine. He said he didn’t contact DCF because he was living with his mother at the time. He learned of his daughter’s death from TV coverage of her funeral.
State officials say Mixson was contacted by mail but never responded. He continued to pay $40 to $50 a week in child support directly to the mother, Sharon Hamilton, court records show.
Shannon Bane, 18, says she was so scared of some of her foster parents that she slept with a knife under her mattress.
— Crista Jeremiason/staff
In February, Latiana and her brother were placed in the Arlington foster home of Keith and Lena Cumberbatch. Homes like the Cumberbatches’ are supposed to be safe havens for Florida’s nearly 20,000 foster children. Most of the state’s 4,200 foster homes meet that standard.
The number of children mistreated in foster care has risen every year since 1998, according to DCF and the Legislature’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability.
DCF found some indication of abuse or neglect for 92 out of every 1,000 children in foster care in the yearlong period that ended in March, Watkins said. That more than doubled the rate of cases in 1998-99, when 37 out of every 1,000 children were abused or neglected in foster care, according to the legislative report. Lawmakers want an update from the accountability office by Feb. 1.
In Northeast Florida, the rate was 53 out of 1,000 last year, according to DCF. Local statistics weren’t kept before last year.
The Legislature has a goal that no more than 30 children per 1,000 be mistreated in foster care. The federal standard is just under six per 1,000, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
By contrast, less than two children in 1,000 in Florida’s general population are abused or neglected, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
DCF Secretary Kathleen Kearney said after the legislative report was released that reforms take time to show results and the accountability office used statistics that were 8 months old.
Kearney refused to be interviewed for this report, but Watkins said the department believes the rate of abused children is closer to 40 out of 1,000. He said the numbers are inflated by a reporting system that counts cases in the year they are reported, not the year and venue they occur. For example, he said, if a child was abused by his parents in 1998 but didn’t report it until he was in foster care three years later, that case would be counted in 2001 as abuse in foster care. But the state has always used that reporting method.
Watkins has ordered a file-by-file review of the nearly 1,400 foster care maltreatment cases in the state last year to figure out why it is occurring and try to prevent it.
No matter how it’s counted, Firestein said, there still are “a lot of kids being hurt” in homes the state picks, tests and trains.
Other children in the Cumberbatch home recounted horrific stories of beatings and torture, police said. In videotaped interviews, the children said Latiana routinely had her head held under water to force her to drink; her brother’s genitals were squeezed and twisted; and another boy in the home had a tooth knocked out by a spoon during a forced feeding.
“The children are being removed from their homes because of abuse or neglect, and instead of making their lives better, they’re making their lives worse,” Schroth said.
Shannon Bane, 18, remembers being so scared of some of her foster parents that she slept with a knife and became a chronic runaway. Bane, who is suing DCF for her records, said she bounced from home to home in Jacksonville after she was taken from her alcoholic mother at age 3.
A state inspection of foster care files in the Jacksonville district, prompted by Latiana’s death, found other homes still licensed and housing children despite numerous complaints about abuse and other problems. Lee Johnson, DCF’s longtime Jacksonville district administrator, said those problems have been corrected.
By any standard, Latiana’s new home was crowded.
The Cumberbatches had four of their own children plus four foster kids, for whom they received about $1,500 a month from DCF. Their 1,868-square-foot home has two bathrooms and three or four bedrooms.
DCF’s stated goal is that there be no more than five children in a foster home, including foster kids and the parents’ own children. The department says overcrowding can contribute to maltreatment, though there are many overcapacity homes that function well.
The Cumberbatch home was licensed for two foster children, but as they often do, DCF counselors sought a waiver to get Latiana and her brother placed there. Counselors said they wanted the siblings to remain together, the most common reason they cite when exceeding licensed capacity, according to a year of waiver requests reviewed by the Times-Union.
The review showed that DCF officials granted more than 500 waivers in a year in the Jacksonville district, often over the objections of the department’s licensing division. Frequently, counselors cited no reason, despite a DCF edict to do so. Only about half the overcrowded homes in District 4 had what DCF calls an “appropriate waiver.”
Statewide, 14 percent of foster homes are overcrowded, according to an August report by the DCF. In the Jacksonville district, nearly 25 percent of foster homes are over capacity, the report shows. More than 160 foster children in the Jacksonville area live in overcrowded homes.
The percentage of overcrowded homes is down statewide from a year ago, when it was 20 percent. But in the Jacksonville area, the rate of overcrowded homes has increased from 20 to 24 percent.
Johnson said foster parenting is a difficult, demanding job, but preliminary statistics show the number of overcrowded homes declining since August.
Nearly everyone agrees that overcrowding increases the potential for abuse in foster homes by parents or other children. In addition to murder, Lena Cumberbatch is charged with nine counts of child abuse, some of which accuse her of letting other children in the home abuse the younger ones.
Firestein questioned why under-capacity foster homes cannot be better utilized. Johnson said some of the district’s 176 under-capacity homes simply aren’t suitable and need to be de-licensed. Others only accept certain types of children and some are taking a hiatus from foster care.
“We can’t force people,” he said.
Too little, too late
Two days after Latiana died, a DCF counselor wrote to a supervisor at a Detroit child welfare agency, asking for records of complaint investigations the Michigan agency had done while the Cumberbatches were foster parents there from 1992 to 1995.
Those records weren’t sought when Florida licensed the Cumberbatches, so local officials didn’t know the couple had been investigated for various complaints in 1993 and 1994, including malnourishment and improper discipline. The 1994 complaint was substantiated by Michigan authorities, and the Cumberbatches were ordered to attend training on discipline and special needs children. They surrendered their license in 1995 after adopting a child.
A DCF spokesman said that prior to the memo, staffers weren’t required to ask about previous complaints, and Michigan officials said they only sent what DCF requested. Johnson noted that Michigan’s initial communication with his department said there were no complaints against the couple.
But child advocates were astounded that Florida officials didn’t have all the Michigan information before licensing the couple in February.
“All of that is information the department should be getting, or if they get it, they ignore it,” said Tallahassee attorney Karen Gievers, who is spearheading the class action suit. For example, she said, an 11-year-old Miami girl named in her lawsuit was placed in a home where the foster father had a criminal record for sexually abusing children. After Latiana’s slaying, DCF licensure staffers in the Jacksonville district were ordered to ask out-of-state agencies about complaints and concerns, background screening and why a family no longer is licensed. That order “identifies questions that should have been asked in the Cumberbatch case,” Watkins said.
Florida’s administrative code says officials must seek a reference from the other state and “can ask for additional information as appropriate, such as a request for a copy of the home study or last relicensing study.”
State Rep. Mark Mahon, R-Jacksonville, said he and other members of the House Child and Family Security Committee met last month for an overview of foster care.
“One of the many concerns was getting more information on the foster parents … and getting background,” he said.
The committee is considering legislation.
Once a home is licensed, counselors are supposed to visit once a month — more often if the home is over capacity. DCF wouldn’t say how often the Cumberbatch home was visited, only that counselors did nothing wrong. Cumberbatch told police a counselor visited every month.
But DCF reports for last year show the Jacksonville district’s 42 counselors made in-home visits every month with less than one out of every five foster children.
Johnson said the district is trying to turn those numbers around, including a requirement that counselors schedule home visits in the first two weeks of every month. That way, they have the second half of the month to make up visits that were missed.
Monthly visits also are affected by turnover, Johnson said, but “we’ve been tracking that recently, and we think there is substantial improvement” in home visitations. He estimated that DCF is visiting 90 percent of foster kids once a month in their homes.
When 6-year-old Kayla McKean was killed by her father in Clermont three years ago, the case prompted months of publicity, intense public outcry and the “Kayla McKean Law,” giving DCF increased responsibilities and powers to investigate abuse.
It’s that law that most agree has rapidly increased the number of Florida children being removed from their homes and placed in foster care.
In contrast, Latiana Hamilton seems all but forgotten.
Lawmakers aren’t clamoring to name legislation after her. Johnson called her “the foster child that died” during a news conference last month. Reporters referred to “the Cumberbatch case.” Latiana’s name wasn’t uttered.
No headstone marks her grave at Edgewood Cemetery, and none has been ordered. There are no flowers. No teddy bears. No balloons like on other children’s graves nearby.
Just a patch of dirt and the fading memory of a little girl’s brief, tortured life.
Times-Union staff writers Binyamin Appelbaum and Veronica Chapin contributed to this report.
KATHLEEN KEARNEY TIMES-UNION JUDICIAL EVENT THE TIMES (904) 723-2049 CHILD PROTECTIVE SERVICES DEBORAH SCHROTH LONGTIME DISTRICT ADMINISTRATOR DCF MICHIGAN PERSON COMMUNICATION AND MEETINGS SUPERVISOR AT A DETROIT CHILD WELFARE AGENCY COUNSELOR U.S. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES JEB BUSH FAMILY SECURITY COMMITTEE ARLINGTON FAMILY SAFETY DIRECTOR FOR THE FLORIDA DEPARTMENT LEGISLATURE’S OFFICE OF PROGRAM POLICY ANALYSIS AN NEW YORK