A Reseda mother and PTA president, charged with murdering an infant she cared for in her home and also under investigation in the death of another baby, was described Monday as a "caring and sweet" baby-sitter who is loved by children she cared for and still trusted by their parents.
About two dozen parents, friends and relatives attended a bail review hearing to show support for Debra Suzanne Cummings, 32, charged with murdering Kevin Young, a 9-month-old whom Cummings had cared for almost daily for six months.
The infant died on June 16 of skull fractures suffered in Cummings' house.
Cummings told police the baby fell against a coffee table but a coroner's report said the injuries "were inconsistent with" that explanation and that the baby appeared to have been hit with a hand or fist.
The Los Angeles County coroner's office concluded that Kevin died of blunt force trauma to the head, resulting in two fractures to the back of the skull.
Cummings, president of the PTA at Shirley Avenue Elementary School in Reseda, sat quietly with her hands folded as half a dozen parents testified that they would not hesitate to leave their children with Cummings despite the murder charge she faces. Cummings began to cry quietly as friends and relatives stood to give their names for the court record.
"I have a child 3 years old who will not be left with anybody but Debbie," said Cathy Clebanoff, a mother of three.
"My children request to be with her," said another parent, Monica Marcial, who has left her three children with Cummings on about 15 occasions.
"She's very caring. Very caring and sweet," testified Doris Apperson, who said Cummings has been caring for her 5-year-old son, Jason, since he was 18 months old. "He never wanted to come home," Apperson said.
After hearing the testimony, Van Nuys Municipal Judge Leslie Ann Dunn set Cummings' bail at $100,000 and scheduled a preliminary hearing for Aug. 8. Cummings had been held without bail since she turned herself in July 3 after learning that she faced a murder charge.
Cummings had not posted bail as of late Monday.
Cummings' attorney, Joe Ingber, asked that bail be set at "a reasonable amount" and denounced the charge as a vendetta by the Los Angeles Police detective investigating the case. Detective Larry Dolley denied he was prejudiced against Cummings.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Ann Korban scoffed at Ingber's accusation. "It seems just a teeny bit coincidental that within three months, two little boys in this woman's care have died." Korban asked that Cummings remain in Sybil Brand Institute without bail.
Cummings is also under investigation in connection with the March 15 death of a 14-month-old boy in her charge.
Matthew Cooley of Reseda lost consciousness while at a park with Cummings. The boy's doctor ruled the cause of death a seizure resulting from an organic medical problem of undetermined origin.
But Matthew's mother, Lynn Cooley, testified Monday as a prosecution witness that the baby had had seizures only in Cummings' presence. Cooley described Matthew, her only child, as "basically very happy and healthy" except for a few ear infections. Three prior baby-sitters did not report seizures, Cooley testified.
Cooley said Cummings began caring for Matthew in June, 1989, and that she was called to hospital emergency rooms on Sept. 14 and Jan. 29 when her son suffered what Cummings described as seizures.
"The first time, he was lethargic and didn't really know anybody around him," Cooley testified. "He took about three hours to get back to normal. The second time I got there, he was screaming bloody murder like he had just woken up from a nightmare."
Cummings told paramedics that the boy turned blue while taking a nap in the Sepulveda Dam Recreation Area after Cummings took him there to play. He was rushed by ambulance to Valley Presbyterian Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead shortly after arrival.
The coroner's office, which investigates all unnatural deaths in the county, did not perform an autopsy because the boy's doctor attributed the death to natural causes, prosecutors said. A private autopsy was performed by hospital officials, at the request of the parents, but the results are not yet known, Korban said.
The Los Angeles Police Department may ask the coroner's office to conduct its own autopsy, police said.
Cummings' husband, Michael, a truck driver, testified that because of the seizures his wife had asked Matthew's mother "not to bring him anymore, and she had asked very desperately that we continue baby-sitting." Michael Cummings said he asked the boy's mother to write a letter stating "that should there be an injury, we would not be held liable for it." He presented the letter to the judge.
Michael Cummings also testified that Kevin was sick for about a week before his death. "He had trouble keeping his food down," he testified.
Under questioning by Korban, Michael Cummings said that his wife has two children from a previous marriage who live with their father in Oregon. He said a court awarded custody to the father in large part because Debra Cummings "was underage at the time and he would be better able to support them."
rosecutors said Cummings, who lives in a house in the 19100 block of Lemay Street, advertised her baby-sitting service in the local Pennysaver advertiser. She usually cared for only a few children and did not have the required state license, prosecutors said.