In photos, Isaac Lethbridge looks like a mischievous, dimpled elf. He has a big grin and electric blue eyes in a cheery, heart-shaped face. It's hard to imagine that face toward the end, covered with green and blue bruises, both eyes blackened.
Isaac traveled a painful journey in his 2 1/2 years. He was neglected by his parents, moved through three troubled foster homes in less than a year and was dead by last Aug. 16, beaten and burned, his collarbone broken.
What happened to him under state supervision exposes a child welfare system so overwhelmed and lax in its oversight that, despite attempts at reform, children still are being placed in danger.
A Free Press examination of court records, trial testimony and state investigative reports shows that during his 11 months in foster care, there were many people who could have saved Isaac. No one did.
The Free Press found:
After Isaac's death, the state Department of Human Services suspended Lula Belle's license -- the first time in at least four years it had taken such action against one of the hundreds of agencies paid by the state to place kids in foster care. It was clear from the state's own investigation that the problems didn't happen overnight.
"There were a tremendous amount of lies" by Lula Belle officials, DHS director Marianne Udow told the Free Press.
But the state, too, had failed to detect problems in the foster homes and at Lula Belle, until after Isaac's death. Then, investigators found plenty.
Critics say Isaac's death demonstrates broader shortcomings in the state human services department, which often relies on inexperienced, overburdened workers and outdated methods to police itself. The department currently has just 12 licensing workers to oversee the 500 public and private agencies paid by the state to license 7,840 homes that provide care for 18,660 children.
Ken Merritt, an attorney representing Lula Belle, defended the center, saying it didn't know of any serious problems. "We're not responsible for Isaac's death," he said.
Merritt maintained that Lula Belle officials called Michigan's Child Protective Services on Aug. 4 -- 12 days before Isaac's death -- to notify investigators of his bruises. Merritt said a protective services worker rejected the complaint over the phone.
But a state DHS investigation concluded there was no record of any call from Lula Belle that day. Indeed, the state said, there were other instances in which bruises on Isaac and his 3-year-old sister, who was in foster care with him, weren't reported.
Elizabeth Carey, executive director of the Michigan Federation for Children and Families, which represents private nonprofit agencies, said DHS did not provide adequate oversight of Lula Belle.
"There used to be a lot more staff in contracting and licensing" at DHS, she said, "and they didn't just come out during a crisis. ... They used to find an Isaac before it happened."
Parents' record of neglectIsaac was Matt and Jennifer Lethbridge's eighth child.
He was born at home on Nov. 7, 2003, in Pell Lake, Wis., where his parents had moved to avoid Child Protective Services in Michigan and Ohio. They'd fled Ohio a year earlier when Isaac's sister -- whom the Free Press is not naming because of her age -- was born at their home near Toledo. Her birth wasn't registered and the family went into hiding when, alerted by Michigan, Ohio Child Protective Services tried to investigate.
Six children had already been permanently removed for neglect from the Lethbridges in Michigan.
The couple met in 1989, when he was 15 and she was 13, and married in 1995, two years after their first child, a daughter, was born blind and with multiple medical problems. By 1997, they had four children under age 5, and were expecting a fifth. That year, Washtenaw County Child Protective Services received the first of many complaints that the couple was neglecting the children.
In April 1998, the state removed the four oldest children, a girl and three boys, from their home in Ann Arbor. The next month, the couple had a baby boy and he was removed.
The DHS and the Washtenaw County Family Court then began years of efforts, including counseling and financial help, to try to reunite the family, according to court records. The state even paid $1,500 in past-due utility bills. But well into the process, one caseworker noted: "The parents cannot acknowledge that there are any problems. The parents do not seem willing to change or rectify the conditions that brought these children to our attention."
Doctors told the court that Jennifer Lethbridge was bipolar and had a personality disorder that made it hard for her to take responsibility for her actions.
The Lethbridges -- he is now 33 and she is 30 -- admit they made mistakes, including hiding from DHS the fact that their disabled oldest child was hurt when she fell out of her wheelchair as her father pushed her down the front steps of their home. This was during a time when DHS was monitoring the family.
The couple say they were young and struggling and Matt Lethbridge had lost a good-paying job at a toner cartridge recycling company.
In April 2001, citing information the children's foster parents brought to the court's attention and a seeming lack of progress from the Lethbridges, a Washtenaw County judge terminated the couple's parental rights to their five children. The next year, the court ended their rights to a sixth child, a boy born in September 2001 who had been placed in foster care almost immediately. Other families later adopted all of them.
"We didn't understand completely what it takes to be good parents," Jennifer Lethbridge said.
Running from authoritiesIsaac's birth was registered in Wisconsin. But soon, a complaint was filed there alleging their home was filthy and had no running water or heat. When Child Protective Services tried to check, the family pulled up stakes again.
Back in Michigan in 2005, money was tight. The family was living in a run-down rented home on Avondale Street in Westland and the Lethbridges weren't getting along. In April, Matt Lethbridge, who was working for a technology company in Troy, lost that job and the couple separated for several months.
"Every day I woke up and said, 'Is this the day? Is this the day that I have to walk my kids to the DHS office because I can't feed them?' " Jennifer Lethbridge said.
Alerted to problems, police knocked on the door on Sept. 19, 2005. Jennifer Lethbridge didn't want to let them in. Officers said more than a dozen birds were flying freely inside, their droppings everywhere. Maggots crawled on bags of trash and the stench of feces and garbage permeated the air.
Isaac, then almost 2, and his 3-year-old sister were playing with rotten food on the floor. Dirty diapers littered the house. Flies circled food on the kitchen counter. A few days after police removed the two children, the house was condemned.
The Lethbridges were charged with neglect. Jennifer -- then pregnant with her ninth child -- spent 45 days in jail. Matt received a suspended sentence.
Foster home No. 1Isaac's first stop in foster care was at Martina Brown's tiny brick house on Troester Street on Detroit's east side. When he and his sister arrived on Sept. 19, 2005, the house was already brimming with children.
Brown, who was divorced and a high school dropout who'd earned a GED, had adopted five children during her tenure as a licensed foster parent with Orchards Children's Services of Southfield from 1991 to 1999. Foster parents receive $14.24 to $17.59 a day or more to care for kids, depending on their age and services required.
When Brown sought to renew her foster care license through Lula Belle in mid-2004, she told a worker she'd had complaints filed against her with Child Protective Services during her time with Orchards but none was substantiated. According to Brown's file, the Lula Belle worker asked Orchards for the records and was told they couldn't be found. The Lula Belle licensing went through.
Reached in North Carolina, where she now lives, Brown, 40, would not discuss details of the investigations. "In those reports, they will tell you when they investigated, it was unsubstantiated -- that it did not happen, and that was that," she said.
Some neighbors, however, were wary of the home. Robert Grimm said he wouldn't let his grandchildren play at Brown's house because there seemed to be little supervision.
"They would run up and down the street and often stay out late until 10 p.m.," Grimm said. "There were lots of grown-ups coming and going, too."
A few weeks after Isaac and his sister were placed with Brown, their court-appointed attorney, Lorena Jaquet, visited. She reported to Child Protective Services that Brown's home was dirty and that she was concerned about the number of children living there, but no action was taken.
Brown insists she was a good foster parent.
"I did what I had to do to take care of my children," she said.
Isaac and his sister's stay with Brown lasted about three months, cut short by her move to North Carolina.
Foster home No. 2Isaac's next stop: The home of Patricia Kennedy.
Kennedy, a longtime foster mother who had nine adopted children, knew Brown and sometimes babysat for her. Kennedy had been licensed through Lula Belle in 2000, but had let the license expire in July 2005. At the time, she was behind in her foster parent training and had failed to schedule a required home visit for licensing.
But that November, she applied for a new license through Lula Belle.
Kennedy was living on Ohio Street on Detroit's west side. The agency's workers had previously noted that the home was in disrepair and Kennedy was slow to fix the problems. Still, the agency quickly gave her a new license on Dec. 20, 2005.
Isaac and his sister arrived two days later.
The children should never have been placed with her, the Free Press found, because a Child Protective Services investigation had substantiated a claim of neglect against her in March 2005 after her heat and electricity were shut off for nonpayment. Several of her adopted children were living with her at the time.
Kennedy's name should have been placed on the state's Central Registry, a confidential list of confirmed cases of abuse and neglect. And that would have barred her from regaining her foster care license. While it is unclear when her name was put on the registry, Kennedy told the Free Press that Lula Belle workers checked it when she applied for a new license in late 2005 and told her that her record was clear.
In January, Shirley Anderson-Titus, a new court-appointed lawyer assigned to monitor Isaac and his sister, was looking for them for a required home visit. She told supervisors later that Lula Belle hadn't told her the children had been moved from Brown's home and messages she left at the agency weren't returned. Anderson-Titus finally located the children at Kennedy's home and visited on Jan. 24, 2006. She didn't report any problems.
At the time, at least four of Kennedy's adopted children still were living at the home. Some had psychological problems and brushes with juvenile court.
One daughter, who'd been diagnosed with mental retardation and schizophrenia, had set the family basement on fire, destroying it, several years earlier. The girl once had also cut her sister with a knife and chased her with scissors. Her psychologist deemed her a "clear threat to others," court records show.
Kennedy's 16-year-old son had assaulted his brother in March 2005, punching him in the face. The charge landed him in juvenile court for a second time. A third son had a history of truancy.
Kennedy, 61, was battling health problems, including diabetes. Veda D. Thompkins, a friend and Detroit foster parent, said she told Kennedy to return Isaac and his sister to Lula Belle and concentrate on her health.
"She had good intentions," Thompkins said. "She was just overwhelmed."
Skipped visits to homeSoon after Isaac and his sister were placed with Kennedy, one of her daughters noticed while changing the little girl's diaper that her genital area was swollen.
"They called me and said, 'Mommy, come see this,' " Kennedy said.
Kennedy said she told the children's Lula Belle social worker, Karl Troy, about it in January 2006, but he never stopped by to check on either child. Troy declined to speak with the Free Press, but a state investigation found that Lula Belle's files contained no proof that any caseworker visited the home from January to April last year.
Kennedy admits she did nothing more about the swelling for four months, finally taking the child to a doctor in mid-April because the swelling didn't go down. The child was diagnosed with hepatitis B, a serious liver disease that can be contracted sexually, through needles or from an infected mother at birth.
The girl was scheduled to return for treatment two weeks later, but Kennedy said she never returned because both she and the child fell ill. She didn't complete paperwork Troy requested either.
"I felt it was his job to do that," Kennedy said. "I did my part."
When the children's lawyer sought to visit the children in May, she once again couldn't find them. Kennedy had moved a few blocks, to another house on Ohio Street, and no one had told the lawyer.
The lawyer, Anderson-Titus, reported that in May, Kennedy told her about the hepatitis B diagnosis and that one of her sons had been diagnosed with it as a baby. Matt Lethbridge said Kennedy told him the same thing in June.
Kennedy now denies saying that and insists people in her household tested negative for hepatitis B. The Lethbridges also say they do not have the disease.
Matt Lethbridge said he demanded answers from Lula Belle and got none, so he called Child Protective Services and the state Children's Ombudsman but got no help.
Court records say little about the girl's condition except that she contracted the disease in a Wayne County foster home. But her parents say they have been told more recently that she may have been misdiagnosed. They don't know for sure.
Foster home's problemsKennedy insists Isaac and his sister thrived with her. Later, state investigators found a host of problems.
The children slept in the same bed as Kennedy, a violation of regulations. She said they didn't like to sleep alone and would crawl in with her.
Kennedy's 20-year-old daughter, Ericka, told the Free Press they gave the children nicknames, another violation of DHS rules. Isaac was called Justin because they thought he looked like singer Justin Timberlake. His sister was nicknamed Michaela, after the main character in the "Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman" television series.
Ericka also said she and her 14-year-old sister taught the kids rap songs containing profanity and graphic lyrics about sex and violence.
"Isaac didn't even speak when he was taken, just minor words," Matt Lethbridge said. "They both have been using profanity since early on when they went into the Kennedy house."
During supervised visits, the Lethbridges said their kids were unkempt and bruised. Troy, the children's social worker, saw the bruises, too, but never notified Child Protective Services as required, the DHS investigation showed. Kennedy maintains that no one in her home ever hurt the children and crawling around on carpeting caused the marks.
"Those kids were happy, well adjusted," Kennedy told the Free Press.
In June 2006, Lula Belle workers informed Kennedy that the Lethbridge kids were being moved. She said she was given no explanation.
On June 29, Lula Belle sent the kids to another foster home with a familiar pattern: lots of kids, lots of problems.
And it would only be a matter of weeks before Isaac was dead.
Family's timelineMatt and Jennifer Lethbridge's nine children became state wards. The two youngest remain in foster care. Here is a brief history of the family's struggles:
April 1997: Washtenaw County receives first of many reports that the Lethbridges are neglecting their four children.
April 1998: Washtenaw Department of Human Services places the children in foster care.
May 17, 1998: Jennifer Lethbridge gives birth to a fifth child, a boy. Days later, he's placed in foster care in Washtenaw County.
April 25, 2001: Washtenaw County family judge orders termination of the couple's rights to their five children.
Sept. 15, 2001: The Lethbridges have another child, a boy, in Windsor. A hospital social worker, suspicious of their explanation for why they came across the border, calls child welfare officials. They take temporary custody of the baby for his protection after checking with child protection workers in Washtenaw County. Eventually, he is returned to Michigan and placed in foster care.
Aug. 14, 2002: Living in Lucas County, Ohio, near Toledo, the Lethbridges give birth to a daughter. They don't register the birth and flee when child protection officials try to take her.
Aug. 21, 2002: A Washtenaw County judge ends their parental rights to the son born in Windsor.
Nov. 7, 2003: Isaac Lethbridge is born at home in Wisconsin, where the family went after leaving Ohio. They register his birth but move again in summer 2004 after a complaint that their home lacks running water.
Sept. 19, 2005: Isaac and his 3-year-old sister are removed from filthy conditions in the family's Westland home. During the next 11 months, the Lula Belle Stewart Center in Detroit sends them to three foster homes.
Feb. 23, 2006: The Lethbridges' first child, Ashleigh, who has multiple disabilities, dies after a seizure in her adoptive home in Detroit at age 12.
April 10, 2006: The ninth child, a girl, is born at home in Whitmore Lake. Her birth isn't registered. She is placed in foster care later that month.
Aug. 16, 2006: Isaac is fatally beaten and burned in a Detroit foster home. His sister is moved to a Washtenaw County foster home with her sister.