Child's Death in Overcrowded Foster Home Highlights Statewide Problem' Advocates...

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Following the death of a 17-month-old child in an overcrowded foster home in Florida and the arrest of her foster mother for first-degree murder, national and local child advocacy groups are calling for an independent federal investigative Strike Force. The Strike Force would immediately investigate all foster homes with more than five children and monitor the safety of children placed in overcrowded foster homes by Florida's Department of Children and Families (DCF). The coalition of child advocates says the conditions surrounding the toddler's death in foster care are not isolated but symptomatic of a failure by DCF to protect and care for foster children throughout the state. A federal audit of the Florida foster care system by the Department of Human Service begins this month.

Foster child Latiana Hamilton was found beaten and drowned in a bathtub on July 18. Her foster mother, Lena Cumberbatch, was arrested on July 27 for first-degree murder. Eight children (four foster children and four biological children of Cumberbatch's), ranging in age from 2 months to 10 years, were living in the home. The biological children told police about a history of abuse by Cumberbatch since the foster children arrived. One child witnessed the drowning of Latiana.

"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," said Deborah Schroth of Florida Legal Services, a statewide non-profit organization that is part of a federal class action lawsuit, Bonnie L v. Jeb Bush, charging Florida's foster care system with violating the federal constitutional and statutory rights of children in their care. "These children, in need of the protection of the State, are suffering emotional, physical and even sexual abuse while in the very homes intended to protect them. Other tragedies like Latiana's death are waiting to happen throughout the state."

There are more children in Florida's foster care than ever before (an estimated 18,000 in foster homes, group homes and other facilities). A February 2001 state report on overcrowding found that:

*Out of 4,242 foster homes, 16% of foster homes are over their licensed capacity even though 52% of foster homes are under their licensed capacity.
*There are currently 62 foster homes with more than 10 children.

A recent DCF report states that " there may be a substantial number of homes that are over the five-child limit during any given point in time" and that "foster parents who must deal with too many children...are prime targets for stress which may result in maltreatment."

"This death is on the state's hands," stated Karen Gievers, an attorney in Tallahassee who initiated the Bonnie L. lawsuit. "State officials, being aware of the increased risk of maltreatment that comes with homes having more than 5 children, are only examining homes with over 10 children. That is not good enough. Foster children are abused daily in overcrowded homes and now a little girl has been killed. We are calling for an independent federal Strike Force to begin an immediate investigation into all foster homes with more than five children. It must also examine all foster homes that are underutilized to determine if they are capable of caring for children safely."

"The rate of maltreatment of children in Florida foster care is 2,000 times the maximum permissible rate set by the federal government," stated Rose Firestein, an attorney at Children's Rights, a national non-profit child advocacy group that is co-counsel on the Bonnie L. lawsuit. "In the fiscal year 1999-2000, a shockingly high 81 out of every thousand children in Florida's foster care system were neglected or abused by their foster parents or by the staff at a foster care facility. In contrast, 18.9 out of every thousand children in Florida's general population were the subjects of a confirmed report of neglect or abuse at the hands of their biological parents or custodians. Unlike the biological parents who maltreated their children, the foster caregivers were selected, trained, approved and paid by DCF (or its agents) to provide a safe place for children to live."

Background on Bonnie L. v. Jeb Bush
The Bonnie L. v. Jeb Bush federal lawsuit was filed in 2000 on behalf of 23 named plaintiffs- children who have suffered serious physical and psychological harm while in the care of DCF and on behalf of the approximately 15,000 foster care children who are currently dependent on DCF for their care and protection. The defendants in the suit include Governor Jeb Bush and Kathleen Kearney, secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families.

Key facts and claims in the lawsuit regarding overcrowding of foster homes state that:

*DCF's continued overcrowding and inadequately supervised foster homes and other out-of-home care facilities expose children in DCF's custody to the imminent risk of sexual and other abuse, neglect and other dangers while they remain in DCF's care.
*DCF has put children in foster care placements that were dangerous, abusive, neglectful, overcrowded or wholly inappropriate and incapable of meeting the children's individual needs.

A federal magistrate in Florida, the Hon. Robert Dubé, recently upheld the legal claims in the lawsuit even thought the state had moved to have all of the legal claims dismissed. He recommended to the district court judge, the Hon. Federico Moreno, that the case proceed as a class action on behalf of all the children in the state. His recommendations are now under consideration by the federal judge and a hearing is scheduled for August 28, 2001.

Media contacts throughout Florida:

Jacksonville: Deborah Schroth: 904-355-5200; Wayne Hogan: 904-632-2424
West Palm: Ted Babbit: 561-684-2500 and Robert Montgomery: 561-832-2880
Miami: Carolyn Salisbury: 305-284-4321; Greg Samms: 305-573-2444:
Orlando: Kevin Cannon: 407-839-1040
Tampa/St. Petersburg: Neil Spector: 813-229-0900
Sarasota: Susan Stockham: 941-957-0094
Pensacola: Bob Kerrigan: 850-444-4444
Gainesville: Claudia Wright: 352-392-0412
Ft. Lauderdale: Chris Zawisza: 954-262-6027
Daytona Beach: Bill Chanfrau: 800-969-7313 or 904-258-7313

Children's Rights works throughout the United States in partnership with national and local experts, advocates and government officials to document the needs of children in the care of child welfare systems. Children's Rights helps develop realistic solutions and, where necessary, uses the power of litigation to ensure that reform takes place.
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