A woman who lost custody of her children while in a city witness protection program filed a $34 million lawsuit against the Baltimore Department of Social Services yesterday, alleging that her toddler son suffered a fractured skull when he was slammed onto concrete steps while staying with a foster family.
The lawsuit filed in Baltimore City Circuit Court alleges that the boy, who was 2 1/2 at the time of the incident last year, sufferers from severe brain damage and requires constant medical care.
The 15-year-old daughter of the foster care provider was arrested in October and charged with child abuse, reckless endangerment and second-degree assault.
DSS officials said yesterday that they had not reviewed the lawsuit and declined to comment on it.
The alleged abuse case represents the latest in a string of incidents that have shaken the state's social services network.
Last month, child advocates were outraged when they learned that hard-to-place foster children were being illegally housed in a downtown office building. Earlier this year, elected leaders vowed to undertake reforms after an investigation by The Sun exposed lax oversight at privately run group homes.
State and local officials have promised changes but caution that it could take years to turn around the social services system, which serves more than 10,000 foster care children every year, most of them in Baltimore.
Recently, DSS officials have talked about opening an emergency shelter to house troubled youths, as well as revving up recruitment efforts for foster families.
Witness in attack
The toddler's mother, Martina Ford, agreed to testify for the city State's Attorney's Office in a case involving the attempted murder of a city police officer in 2002. According to the lawsuit, Ford lost custody of her son, Brandon Williams, and his three siblings last year after she was hospitalized for sickle cell anemia.
Before placing children with a foster family, caseworkers usually review a prospective home as well as the people who live there, including running criminal background checks on anyone 18 years or older.
Joseph B. Espo, an attorney who represents Ford, said DSS officials failed to do a thorough background check on foster parent Chloe Ann Jones, 56, of the 3700 block of Brentford Road in Randallstown. He also alleges that DSS failed to regularly monitor Brandon and his sister, Naya Williams, 5, once they were placed in Jones' care.
Ford's other two children - Jada Brown, 2 1/2 , and Keyon Ford, 10 1/2 - were placed in other homes.
But according to court documents, DSS case workers allowed Brandon and Naya to be placed with Jones despite the fact that she lives with a man who has a criminal record, including assault and drug possession charges.
Those types of charges would typically bar a family from participating in the foster program, a DSS official said.
DSS caseworkers also apparently did not know that Jones had a teenage daughter or that she left Brandon and Naya with the girl while she was away from the house, the lawsuit maintains.
"I don't know what sort of background check was done, but it seems clear that it was grossly inadequate," Espo said.
An attorney for Jones, J. Wyndal Gordon, said that he was going to hold a news conference today to tell his client's side of the story.
"Before jumping to any conclusions, we would ask the public to keep an open mind," Gordon said. "If they have heard anything, they have only heard one side, and we have a vigorous defense."
Evidence of abuse
Baltimore County DSS officials, who investigated the abuse charges and found "credible evidence that abuse occurred," according to Ford's complaint, also declined to comment on the lawsuit.
The details of the case against Jones' teenage daughter were not released by county state's attorney officials yesterday because she is a juvenile.
Brandon and Naya were sent to live with Jones after their mother lost custody of them and two other children while she was staying at a Baltimore County motel as part of the witness protection program.
Ford witnessed the assault and attempted murder of a Baltimore City police officer in July 2002 and had agreed to testify for the prosecution, Espo said.
During their stay at the motel, Ford, who suffers from sickle cell anemia, had a medical emergency that forced her to leave Brandon and Naya, who were with her at the time, with a woman she knew from the witness protection program, Espo said. That woman eventually abandoned the children.
Children taken away
When Ford returned to the motel from the hospital she was told that Brandon and Naya had been taken away by a DSS caseworker who had stopped by the motel to check on the family. Ford has had problems finding backup child care in the past, Espo said, but never abused her children.
DSS officials placed Brandon and Naya with Jones and Jada with another foster family. Keyon, Ford's oldest child, was sent to live with a paternal aunt, according to court documents.
DSS officials reassured Ford that her children had been placed in safe and secure foster homes, the complaint states. They told her that they had visited the homes and knew the foster parents well.
One caseworker told Ford that he had known Jones for years and specifically noted that she had no other children of her own at home, according to court documents.
According to Ford's complaint, Jones left Brandon and Naya alone with the teenage daughter on July 21, 2004. While she was away from the house, the girl apparently tried to recreate a scene she had watched on television with Brandon, and as a result he was severely injured.
When Jones returned home, her daughter told her that the boy was sleeping, according to the complaint. Jones did not check on the toddler until another child told her he would not wake up.
Jones took the child to Northwest Hospital Center, where doctors examined him and discovered multiple fractures to his skull. They also found an earlier fracture of his right wrist that had not been treated, according to the complaint.
A DSS caseworker who went to the hospital to check on Brandon told his mother that he had fallen and that it was "just an accident," court records state.
Because of the severity of his injuries, Brandon was moved to Johns Hopkins Hospital where he stayed for about two months, according to court documents. It was Hopkins officials who suspected child abuse.
Brandon was later moved to Mount Washington Pediatric Hospital where he remains today, his tiny body hooked up to a feeding tube and dialysis machine.
Even upon his eventual discharge, Espo said, Brandon will require 24-hour nursing support.