Foster Care Lapses Appall Child Advocates

Article excerpt

Byline: Paul Pinkham and Veronica Chapin , Times-Union staff writers

Child advocates were dismayed yesterday by reports that Florida child welfare workers never asked for files that would have shown a woman charged with murdering her 17-month-old foster daughter in Jacksonville faced previous abuse and neglect allegations in Michigan.

"I can't believe that if you said you were a foster parent in another state, they wouldn't ask if there had been any complaints," said Suzanne Stevens of Mount Dora, president of the Florida State Foster and Adoptive Parent Association.

Lena Cumberbatch, 36, is accused of beating and drowning Latiana Hamilton in a bathtub in July. She is in the Duval County jail awaiting trial on murder and child abuse charges.

Since the slaying, the Florida Department of Children and Families has insisted there was nothing in Cumberbatch's background to indicate any problems. But records obtained by the Times-Union this week showed that when the couple applied for a Florida foster license last year the agency never asked Michigan authorities for reports of complaints against her and her husband in Detroit, where the couple operated a foster home from 1992 until 1995.

Those records, requested by the state agency two days after Latiana died, show the Cumberbatches violated a Michigan regulation that foster parents should be of suitable temperament to care for children and understand their needs. That finding came after a series of complaints about inappropriate discipline, including locking a young child in a dark basement and telling him the monster would get him for misbehaving, smearing feces on a child's face and whipping a child with a belt.

"I am shocked and outraged that information was not requested which may have revealed a pattern of abusive behavior that could have affected the decision to license that home," said Jack Levine, director of the Center for Florida's Children in Tallahassee. "I don't think anyone in Florida doubts that children who are abused and neglected need special protections. Those special protections . . . certainly should apply to the people that are caring for them."

Attorneys behind a federal lawsuit seeking to overhaul Florida's foster care system said the issue of thorough background checks lies at the heart of their complaints about safety and will be addressed when the case goes to trial. The suit alleges that Florida foster homes are unsafe.

"That's where the safety of children starts," said attorney Karen Gievers of Tallahassee. …

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