Foster mother charged with killing boy, abusing girl

By Crocker Stephenson and Ryan Haggerty of the Journal Sentinel, Nov. 13, 2008

A 24-year-old Milwaukee foster mother was charged Thursday with beating her infant nephew to death and severely abusing her 2-year-old niece. State officials placed the siblings in the woman's care in June, after a West Allis couple who had been caring for the boy tried to adopt him.

Police say Crystal P. Keith began harming the girl almost as soon as she arrived at Keith's home in the 3000 block of S. 12th St., and began abusing the boy, Christopher L. Thomas Jr., in October. According to investigative reports, Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare case workers who are required to have monthly contact with the children, had not been to Keith's home since Sept. 23. Christopher died Tuesday.

Bureau officials have vowed to review the case, which one homicide investigator called one of the worst infant abuse deaths he has seen.

"There are not many cases where there's torture that goes on for a period of months," Milwaukee Police Lt. Alfonso Morales said.

Keith is charged with first-degree reckless homicide and physical abuse of a child causing great bodily harm. She is being held on $200,000 bail at the Milwaukee County Jail. Keith is married to the brother of the children's biological father. Her husband has not been charged in the case.

The West Allis foster mom who wanted to adopt Christopher burst into tears when she learned he was dead.

"We loved him so much," said Darlene M. Logan, 63, a retired teacher.

Keith told police, whom she called to her home Monday, that she repeatedly slapped Christopher in the face for not eating, according to the criminal complaint. She said she choked him, hung him upside down and pressed his head on the floor. At some point, the infant's eyes rolled back into his head and he began to vomit. He stopped breathing. She then stuck the handle of a hairbrush down Christopher's throat, she said, in order to revive him.

The boy died the next day at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin. He had suffered blunt-force trauma to his head, had a broken right arm, bruises on his thighs, throat and neck, multiple scalp injuries and a lacerated tongue. Keith described to police a number of beatings she had given the child since he began crawling.

Keith also told police she began abusing the boy's 2-year-old sister in June, the complaint states.

Burns, fractures

Doctors found burn marks on the child from her head to her feet. She had ligature scars on her back and chest, as well as to her neck, left armpit and legs. She had many broken bones. She was severely undernourished; her body weight, according to the complaint, put her among the lowest 1% of children her age.

Keith told police she scalded the girl with hot water. Her scalded feet had been bandaged, but the blisters broke, adhering the bandages to her feet.

When the girl was brought to Children's Hospital of Wisconsin after her brother's death, medical workers had to soak the bandages off, records show.

A medical report called the girl's injuries blatant, and it is unclear why Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare case workers did not notice the abuse.

"With the Police Department, medical examiner and other authorities, we are investigating this tragic incident," said Denise Revels Robinson, director of the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare.

"When we learn all of the facts surrounding this situation, we will take all necessary and appropriate action," Robinson said.

She said the agency vetted Keith before placing the two children in her home.

"Before BMCW places any children in out-of-home care, a home visit is made to ensure the home is safe, criminal background checks are conducted on every household member 10 years of age and older and a check for past child abuse/neglect history is also conducted," she said.

Mother ill; father jailed

According to a medical examiner's office report:

The boy and girl were taken from their mother about five months after the boy's birth on Oct. 14, 2007. The mother suffered from mental illness and admitted to shaking her daughter, who was diagnosed at the time with failure to thrive. The mother told police she punished the children twice a day.

The boy's father was arrested in late 2007. He pleaded guilty in June to manufacturing/delivering cocaine and is now in custody at the House of Correction, according to court records.

Christopher was placed in temporary custody with the Logans.

"He was a good baby. He laughed all the time. It made you feel good just to be around him," Darlene Logan recalled.

Christopher's sister, who was unable to talk, was placed with Rosie Ferguson, a 63-year-old special treatment foster parent in Germantown. Ferguson said Christopher joined his sister with Ferguson in May.

In June, they were placed with the Keiths.

Ferguson said she called the Keiths frequently and visited them over the summer. The children appeared to her to be doing well.

But two weeks ago, Ferguson said, she called and spoke to Keith, who told Ferguson the children were still sleeping. That struck Ferguson as odd because it was 10 a.m.

Thursday, when Ferguson was told of the boy's death and the girl's abuse, her voice cracked.

"Oh God," she said. "I'm so hurt."

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Contrary to published record

Authorities would like average viewer to believe abuse post-placement is not typical since many safe-guards (like back-ground checks and monthly visits made by caseworkers) are done to protect all children put in out-of-home care.

In this particular case, two key statements are made:

"There are not many cases where there's torture that goes on for a period of months," Milwaukee Police Lt. Alfonso Morales said.

OK, maybe Milwaukee isn't  a hot-spot for poorly run Child Protective Services, that's not to say torture and abuse always gets fully investigated in terms of out-placement situations.  For instance, we have the recently reported Baby P case where one can wonder if background checks and follow-up visits were being done by CPS workers.   And given the story about the Bowman Girls, I'd like to disagree long-term torture does not take place in foster/adoptive homes.  [Call me kooky, but I think living in a house where my sisters bodies are chopped-up and stashed in the basement freezer (for months at a time) just a wee horrific and creepy.... but those girls were adopted by the foster mother, so I guess that makes that type of long-term torture OK.]   Ooooh, let's not forget the role pedophiles get in child services, too.  So all in all, I'm not convinced there is a universal standard of practice that provides or ensures long-term safety for children touched by CP agencies.  

The other statement that caught my attention was made by news-media at Fox News, and yes, I found the last few minutes of this piece a bit amusing.  According to reporters,  Reggie Bicha, said incorrect information has been given to the media (suggesting the monthly follow-up visit required by caseworkers was indeed followed and filed in this case.)  Bottom line from Bicha was this:  some things are kept secret within CPS practices, and the public needs to trust this policy of theirs.

Playing the role of "devil's advocate" in a world filled with angels in adoption,  I wonder how many monthly follow-up visits were made in these reported cases: and

How many more cases do we need to read and see before people realize child placement (through foster care and adoption practices) without follow-up care does NOT promise child safety?  [In fact, I wonder if child safety is in fact a very real goal for many of these child placement agencies....]

The simple truth seems to be very basic:  there are A LOT of nut-job families out there with adults with terrible tempers and very limited patience.  [Good grief, I lived in an ahome where no one in my immediate afamily was put in prison/jail, but that's not to say there was no crime or violence associated with certain relatives!]

What is being done about adult violent behavior so children can live more safely?

Screening and torture

Actually Milwaukee has been confronted with another death in foster care the last month. Robert R Whitman was found dead in his crib only two days after being placed in foster care. So far it is not clear what exactly happened in this case. Given the child was in the foster family for only two days, makes it unlikely we deal here with gross abuse like that of Christopher and Christyanna Thomas as took place at the hands of their aunt Crystal Keith.

Torture of children in foster care and adoption is unfortunately not all that uncommon. When we started our abuse cases section earlier this year, I was shocked to see how many children were being locked up in basements and bathrooms, chained and beaten or withheld food for extended periods of time. Now over 180 cases later, I am still shocked when finding out about a new case, but I am no longer surprised. Every year several really gruesome cases emerge and it immediately raises the question how these people could pass the screening. Even more important: has screening ever been tested? Does it work? Does it prevent children from ending up in horrible situations or does it only provide the public with a false sense of security? I have yet to see a scientific study that provides answers about the effectiveness of the screening and home studies. It could as well be that we are dealing here with a tradition in social work that has no proven effect.

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