Martina Ford holds a photograph showing her son, a chubby child with a misshapen head, lying in a hospital bed in Spider-Man pajamas. In another photo, she awkwardly cradles the boy, whose body is attached to tentacles of tubing.
"That's my pumpkin," said Ford as she pointed to the image of her 3 1/2 -year-old son, Brandon Williams.
About a year ago, Brandon was severely injured while living in a Randallstown foster home. On Monday, Ford filed a lawsuit seeking $34 million from the foster care provider, Chloe Ann Jones, 56, and the Baltimore City Department of Social Services, the state agency that placed Brandon in Jones' home.
J. Wyndal Gordon, an attorney for Jones, disputed Ford's claims yesterday, saying the incident was a tragic accident.
The lawsuit says Brandon suffered a fractured skull and permanent brain damage, and the money is necessary to take care of him for the rest of his life. Jones' 15-year-old daughter was charged as a juvenile in connection with the incident. She is said to have slammed Brandon onto concrete steps and violently shaken him.
Ford's complaint, filed in city Circuit Court on Monday, is the latest in a string of problems for the city social services agency. The problems include the disclosure that DSS caseworkers illegally housed foster children in a downtown office building, as well as oversight problems with privately run group homes.
Ford said that she visits her son at Mount Washington Pediatric Hospital at least twice a week. The two communicate with simple sign language and hand gestures. Brandon is the darling of the hospital floor, the mother said. "Everyone there loves him," said Ford, 29, of South Baltimore.
Still, it is difficult for the mother to erase the image of her son when he was a healthy toddler. Today, his body is connected to so many tubes and monitors that his sister is afraid to go near him. He cannot hold up his head on his own.
DSS officials have declined to comment on the lawsuit. Agency officials placed Brandon with Jones in May 2004 after he and his three siblings were taken from their mother after she was hospitalized for a chronic ailment while participating in a witness protection program. She witnessed the attempted killing of an undercover city police officer in 2002.
Ford blames DSS officials for not doing a better job of screening Jones to make sure her home was safe for Brandon and his sister, Naya Williams, 5, who was also placed there. Her complaint states that case workers didn't know that Jones had a teenage daughter or that the girl was caring for Brandon and Naya while Jones was at work.
The lawsuit also says that a man who was living with Jones had a criminal record. That situation likely would have prevented Jones from serving as a foster parent, DSS officials said.
Gordon, the attorney for Jones and her daughter, said DSS officials knew Jones was working outside the home and that she had no male guests at the house. He called the incident "tragic" and explained that a previously undiagnosed mental problem might have caused the teenager to inadvertently endanger the boy.
Gordon said the teenager was in foster care when she went to live with Jones in 2001. Jones adopted the girl last year when it became clear that she would not be able to return to her biological parents.
"It was not malicious, it was not deliberate, it was not intentional - it was an accident," he said.
Gordon said the teenager dropped Brandon while re-enacting a scene from a SpongeBob Square Pants cartoon in which one character flips another into the air, but the teenager was unable to catch Brandon, and he hit his head on a concrete floor.
Although an adult other than Jones was at the house at the time, the girl did not immediately notify anyone of the boy's injury, the attorney said. Jones, who returned to the house later in the day, took the boy to the hospital when he could not be roused.
Although the teenager had not displayed any mental problems in the past, a psychiatric evaluation after the incident showed some deficiencies, Gordon said. He declined to be more specific.
Gordon called Jones a responsible and well-regarded foster parent who cared for dozens of foster children over the years.