COUPLE: ABUSE IGNORED

Date: 1995-07-09

Author: Annette Gillespie, Herald Staff Writer

Lucas Ciambrone didn't have to die if complaints to the state abuse registry were better investigated in early 1993, according to Bradenton foster parents Todd and Tanya Burnham.

The Burnhams relayed that message in a letter faxed to the media and local, state and national government officials - including President Clinton and his wife, Hillary.

The Burnhams said they reported their concerns about the health of Lucas Ciambrone to the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS) more than a dozen times between January and March of 1993, when Heather and Joseph Ciambrone rented one side of the Burnhams' duplex.

The Burnhams, who are co-founders of Manatee County Friends for Foster Care, listed some of the following reasons why HRS was contacted:

- Concern about the welfare, safety and emotional health of Lucas.

- Concern about the living conditions.

- Suspicion that the Ciambrones were violating the discipline policy established for foster parents.

- Saw Lucas standing in the backyard for hours at a time and was not allowed to sit down, or he was yelled at.

- The boy's head was shaved.

- Saw a bruise on Lucas' face as he made his way from the car into the Ciambrone home. Heather Ciambrone wouldn't allow Tanya Burnham to see Lucas and said he was sick.

``It was all the little things that led me to believe that something was not right,'' Tanya Burnham said.

They later discovered, after evicting the Ciambrones, that the bedroom lock to Lucas' door had been turned around so that it locked from the outside. This was done without permission from the Burnhams.

Tanya Burnham said when she talked to various employees at HRS that she was once told to take Heather Ciambrone under her wing because she was young. Other times, Burnham said she was told that her concerns did not warrant an abuse investigation.

In their letter they said, ``When we evicted Joe and Heather Ciambrone, we invited HRS to come to the residence and observe the condition of the home and what these children were subjected to. HRS chose not to take us up on our offer.''

Lucas Ciambrone, 7, died in All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg on May 13. He had lapsed into a coma two days earlier.

An autopsy showed that Lucas Ciambrone died of ``blunt trauma to his head.''

His adoptive parents, Heather and Joseph Ciambrone, are in jail charged with third-degree murder.

The Burnhams said Saturday that they felt compelled to bring attention to flaws in HRS investigative procedures after hearing HRS administrator Chip Taylor's statement to the media that records show ``no red flags'' noted by HRS counselors regarding Lucas Ciambrone's case.

``I felt like somebody slapped me in the face. I felt like it was an effort to cover the (HRS) department's rear,'' Todd Burnham said Saturday.

``If this were handled differently, Lucas Ciambrone would be alive today. . . . I want people to acknowledge where mistakes were made and make improvements to prevent it from happening again,'' he said.

Todd Burnham challenged Taylor in his letter to investigate what happened with Lucas' case, or to find a new job. Taylor could not be immediately reached for comment; telephone calls placed by the Herald to the HRS District Six office went unanswered Saturday afternoon.

``I hope that (HRS officials) take a look at the system they've got in place. Why staff an abuse hot line if they're not going to appropriately investigate the claims?'' Todd Burnham asked.

Authorities described Lucas Ciambrone's death as possibly the worst case of child abuse in Manatee County with more than 200 reported injuries to the child's body.

Heather Ciambrone, 26, told authorities the boy banged himself against the bathroom walls until he was unconscious.

The boy weighed only 27 pounds when he died.

Heather Ciambrone and her husband, Joseph, 41, were arrested Friday. The couple remained in the Manatee County jail late Saturday in lieu of $75,004 bond each.

Lucas was placed with the Ciambrones after he lost his natural mother in 1991 when she was stabbed to death by his stepfather, now serving a nine-year prison sentence.

When the Burnhams were notified of Lucas' death, they could not understand how his poor condition went undetected.

``I'm just curious to know who came in contact with Lucas during the past two years. If someone, like one of their family members, did come across this little boy, what the hell were they thinking not to do something about it?'' Todd Burnham asked.

The Burnhams believe now is the time to examine and improve the foster care system and investigations of abuse and neglect.

Here are some of the issues they believe need to be addressed:

The state of Florida must assume some liability for the caseloads of HRS caseworkers. ``We cannot allow our legislators to continue placing the burden of safeguarding the welfare of our kids on HRS caseworkers, while at the same time restricting the effectiveness of their work by assigning more cases than any one person can possibly handle,'' their letter said.

Extend the 30-day closure requirement of abuse/neglect allegations to allow investigators the time to do their job properly. Encourage one joint investigation by HRS and law enforcement and pool resources.

While defending some HRS employees' dedication and work, the Burnhams criticized the system and invited the public to join them in their quest to make some positive changes.

``Lucas did not die in vain. Nope, that won't happen,'' the Burnhams' letter said. ``One day Lucas' brothers and sister will want to know why, after numerous reports of abuse and neglect, the state of Florida failed to adequately respond. The answers will be made available.''

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