exposing the dark side of adoption
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Day 2: Unheeded warnings

All the signs were there that Isaac Lethbridge was in trouble. But everyone ignored them, until he died.

January 29, 2007



On paper and by reputation at the Lula Belle Stewart Center, Charlsie Adams-Rogers was a good foster parent who could provide a safe, nurturing home for 2-year-old Isaac Lethbridge and his 3-year-old sister.

Workers at the Detroit-based foster-care placement agency frequently complimented Adams-Rogers' child care skills and training in their reports. She was known among employees and other foster parents for her mentoring and advocacy work.

But a closer look by the Free Press found irregularities in how she was assessed for her foster-care license and a string of complaints that failed to raise alarms.

For a 2005 review, a Lula Belle worker simply cut and pasted Adams-Rogers' evaluation from her 2004 review. Her evaluations in 2003, 2004 and 2005 warned that she risked burnout from outside activities, but her license was still renewed.

Adams-Rogers, 59, also had a history of complaints alleging mistreatment of children in her home. Though Child Protective Services never substantiated any of the nine complaints, people familiar with the child welfare system say the allegations should have raised red flags about what was going on in the brick home on Greenlawn in northwest Detroit.

Critics say the number suggests a pattern of turmoil that should have triggered closer scrutiny of Adams-Rogers by officials at Lula Belle or licensing workers from the state Department of Human Services. The scrutiny was critical, experts say, because young, fragile children were involved.

Adams-Rogers calls Isaac's death a "horrible, horrible accident."

"I've been helping kids all my life," Adams-Rogers said. "I got into foster care to help children."

Rules bent for foster mom

Adams-Rogers' foster-care career began in January 1999, about two years after she retired as an inspector at the Chrysler Sterling Stamping Plant. Lula Belle licensed her shortly after she took in 10 nieces and nephews whose parents had neglected them.

Her provisional license allowed her to receive state funds for the large brood.

Because Adams-Rogers' home had only three bedrooms, the state Department of Human Services gave her an exemption to rules that generally don't allow five children to sleep in one bedroom.

By that April, the 10 children had returned to their parents, and Lula Belle sent four other foster children -- all boys -- to Adams-Rogers' home. Two months later, she asked that they be removed because she was leaving town for a while.

By the end of July, Adams-Rogers was back in the foster-care business. That's when Lula Belle gave her a regular license for as many as four children up to age 17.

Over the years, she received exemptions to care for up to eight children at a time. She estimates she took in 50 foster children.

When Isaac and his sister arrived on June 29, 2006, Adams-Rogers had three adopted children -- ages 18, 12 and 1 -- and two foster children ages 17 and 16 living with her.

All had "significant histories as child victims of physical, sexual and/or emotional abuse, as well as neglect," the DHS said in court records.

Lula Belle workers apparently didn't think twice about sending the two Lethbridge children into a crowded setting with unstable teens and a disturbed adolescent.

Later, a judge noted: "All the flags were up. All the signs were there."

Except everyone ignored them.

A house full of trouble

In interviews with the Free Press, Adams-Rogers acknowledged that she had a big family and a busy household. In addition to her adopted and foster children, she had three adult biological children, 12 grandsons and three great-grandchildren.

One of her sons had a troubled past. Terrance Rogers, 29, was sentenced to 3 months in a state boot camp in 1995 for receiving and concealing stolen property. He also pleaded guilty to domestic-violence charges involving a girlfriend in 2001 and 2002, and served several months in jail for violating probation in those cases. That should have raised eyebrows at Lula Belle during licensing reviews because, in court records as recent as 2003, Terrance listed his mother's address as his own.

Adams-Rogers insists that Terrance didn't live with her, but the DHS noted in an Aug. 24 Wayne County Family Court filing that adults, including Terrance, secretly lived in the house.

The home was "family headquarters," Adams-Rogers said, where relatives often dropped by during the week, came for Sunday dinner and sometimes stayed a few days.

"It does not mean the house was out of control," she said.

Adams-Rogers' adopted 12-year-old daughter was often seen in charge of Isaac and his sister. Court records say she struggled with inappropriate sexual behavior and was physically and verbally aggressive.

"She needs to be constantly monitored on a daily basis," a Lula Belle worker wrote of the girl, who told investigators after Isaac died that she might have accidentally injured him.

One of Adams-Rogers' foster children, a teen with cerebral palsy who had been sexually abused, was in therapy and took prescription medicines, the DHS said.

Before putting Isaac and his sister in Adams-Rogers' home, Lula Belle had removed them from a Detroit foster home where Isaac's sister was diagnosed with hepatitis B, a serious liver disease that can be transmitted sexually as well as other ways. Their social worker noted that they were dirty and bruised while living at that home.

Now, they were in a home with young children with serious problems.

Neighbors speak up

Over the years, some of Adams-Rogers' neighbors called Child Protective Services to complain about crying children and yelling and cursing at her house. She admitted that nine complaints against her, including allegations of physical neglect and improper supervision of kids, were investigated, but she said none was substantiated.

She called the claims "trumped-up lies."

Details about the investigations could not be confirmed because protective services records are confidential.

After one investigation, Adams-Rogers wrote letters and had her children put them in neighbors' mailboxes, saying: "When you can open your home and heart, then you can tell me how many kids I can have in my home."

After that, neighbor Victoria Griffin said, people didn't want to get involved. "People would leave off the porch in the summer because they didn't want to witness anything," she said.

Neighbors said they were troubled because the 12-year-old often seemed to be in charge of Isaac and his sister, even though Adams-Rogers had a live-in caregiver.

One neighbor recalled seeing the girl walking with the kids, Isaac struggling to keep up. The girl yelled and cursed at him, the neighbor said.

Griffin and others noticed the kids were dirty. Once, Griffin saw that Isaac's sister's leg was bleeding.

"I should have said more," she said.

Bruises raise suspicions

On Aug. 4, a little over a month after she took in the Lethbridge kids, Adams-Rogers took Isaac to University Family Physicians on West McNichols in Detroit. He was tugging at his ear, but the doctor noticed something else: bruises on his forehead and back. The doctor called in an associate, Dr. Pierre Morris.

Morris testified in court that he saw multiple bruises in various stages of healing and told Adams-Rogers they looked suspicious. He said she told him Isaac had fallen on a slide at McDonald's during a July 21 visit with his parents, and that another doctor had told her the boy bruised easily.

Morris testified that he planned to report his suspicions of abuse but never reached Child Protective Services by phone. He said he filed the required state form. He wasn't questioned further in court and he did not respond to the Free Press' requests for an interview.

After seeing the doctor on Aug. 4, Adams-Rogers took Isaac to Lula Belle, where she showed the bruises to Karl Troy, his foster-care worker, and said they must have occurred during Isaac's parental visit two weeks earlier. She said she hadn't reported the marks because she thought they'd clear up.

The DHS said Troy noted in Isaac's file that the boy's forehead, cheeks and chin had greenish-blue bruises and his eyes were blackened. But he allowed Isaac to go home with Adams-Rogers. Troy declined to speak with the Free Press. State investigators later faulted him for failing to assess the child's safety or report the injuries to protective services.

The DHS said Troy did not speak with Adams-Rogers again until Aug. 16, when she called to report Isaac's death.

A Lula Belle licensing worker learned of the bruising Aug. 7, but it was two more days before she visited Adams-Rogers' home, where she reported seeing only a light bruise on Isaac's forehead, the DHS said. The department criticized the licensing worker for only interviewing Adams-Rogers.

The state said there was no indication that anyone at Lula Belle ever notified protective services as required. Ken Merritt, an attorney for Lula Belle, disputes that. He said the agency called protective services Aug. 4.

"CPS is the one that's supposed to do something about it," Merritt said.

When Adams-Rogers took Isaac back to Morris on Aug. 14, the doctor said the bruises were healing.

Soon, there would be many more.

A mysterious death

Aug. 16 started out like many other days at Adams-Rogers' home. Deborah Roberts, the live-in caregiver, said she fixed Isaac breakfast around 9:30.

His sister, who had turned 4 just two days earlier, came downstairs about an hour later with Adams-Rogers' 12-year-old daughter, Roberts said. It was hot and, after breakfast, the kids went out to the back porch and played with a stray kitten.

At least nine, and perhaps as many as a dozen, people were in and out of the house that day. Around lunchtime, two of Adams-Rogers' grandchildren stopped by. Another relative came by in the afternoon. Around 1:30, Roberts recalled seeing Adams-Rogers in the den as Roberts headed to her basement bedroom.

Kids were watching televisions upstairs and downstairs, Adams-Rogers said. She recalled that her 12-year-old daughter told her Isaac was napping.

A 16-year-old foster daughter testified that around 3:30 p.m., she came in from the library and headed upstairs to her room. Before long, she heard screaming and ran out to the hallway to find Adams-Rogers' 18-year-old adopted daughter holding Isaac's limp body and screaming for help. The 16-year-old said Adams-Rogers came upstairs, then ran back down and called 911.

According to court records, the 18-year-old told investigators she spotted Isaac lying under a blanket in his bed and thought it was odd on a hot day. When she took off the blanket, she saw he wasn't breathing.

Roberts, the caregiver, testified that Isaac's fingertips were blue, and he had a knot on the right side of his forehead. She said she got a cold towel and put it on his head as the 18-year-old pumped his chest. Roberts searched for a pulse and thought she found one.

When EMS workers arrived, they labored in vain over Isaac for about 25 minutes. He was pronounced dead at Children's Hospital of Michigan shortly after 5 p.m.

Back at the house, Detroit police found seven children in the living room, including a little girl with light-purple bruises on her arms and legs -- presumably Isaac's sister.

"I didn't see any tears from anybody," Officer David Kline said in court.

Protective services workers took the three surviving foster children and Adams-Rogers' two youngest daughters to other foster homes. Adams-Rogers said she turned in her foster-care license; the state moved to cut off her parental rights to her adopted 12- and 1-year-old daughters.

On Jan. 9, Adams-Rogers was charged with involuntary manslaughter for the death of a minor in her custody. She was also charged with two counts of second-degree child abuse.

In court hearings on terminating Adams-Rogers' parental rights, it was revealed that her 12-year-old daughter told investigators she'd been playing with Isaac, tossing him on a mattress, but she missed and he hit the floor. Medical experts testified that it was unlikely the fall could have caused the fatal injuries.

Isaac had brain hemorrhaging, according to an autopsy. His right collarbone was broken. He had second-degree burns on his chest and abdomen and behind one ear. One burn was 4 inches wide. There were old bruises on his lower legs, left arm and left buttock. There were new bruises on his forehead and upper back, and abrasions on his lower back, forehead and eyebrow.

Adams-Rogers maintains that Isaac's death was an accident. As she was arrested, she denied any role in harming him, blaming her 12-year-old daughter. Prosecutors have not ruled out other charges.

Warren Harris, Adams-Rogers' attorney, said his client took Isaac to a doctor because of the bruises and told Lula Belle workers about it.

"We know that a tragic event occurred; a child lost his life," Harris said. "I think that the problem is people automatically attribute that to Mrs. Rogers. ... All I'm saying to the public is, when you have a person who has no history of abuse, who for all intents and purposes is a very good mom, let's not be so quick to judge."

But as she terminated Adams-Rogers' parental rights on Nov. 13, a Wayne County judge noted that Isaac died in a houseful of people, and no one could say they heard a scream.

"Isaac should have been attached to the hip of Ms. Rogers," Family Court Judge Sheila Ann Gibson said. "If something's happening to Isaac, she should have known about it. All the flags were up. All the signs were there."

Hope for his sister

Isaac almost made it.

A few weeks before his death, a Washtenaw County foster mother who was caring for the ninth and youngest Lethbridge child -- a girl born in April 2006 -- said she could take Isaac and his older sister. But moving the kids would require a change in court jurisdiction from Wayne County.

Officials in the two counties were discussing the change when Isaac was killed. Afterward, Wayne County allowed Washtenaw to take charge of his sister's case, and she was placed with the family there.

When her court-appointed lawyer visited the 4-year-old girl on Aug. 30, she was struck by the child's need for affection. Shirley Anderson-Titus said she rocked the little girl to sleep after she climbed crying on her lap.

Two days later, Isaac's funeral was held in Ann Arbor. It was private, attended by only a few family members and friends.

Isaac was cremated. His parents have his remains.

Contact RUBY L. BAILEY at 313-222-6651 or rbailey@freepress.com;

JACK KRESNAK at 313-223-4544 or jkresnak@freepress.com, and TINA LAM at 313-222-6421 or tlam@freepress.com.

2007 Jan 29