Laila Marie Daniel, 2, in an undated family photo. (Family Photo)

The short life and tragic death of Laila Marie Daniel

UPDATE: Two foster parents pleaded not guilty to murder charges in the death of 2-year-old Laila Marie Daniel, who died in their care. Jennifer and Joseph Rosenbaum were arraigned in Henry County Superior Court on charges of malice murder, felony murder, aggravated battery and child cruelty in the death of Laila on Nov. 17, 2015.

Laila Marie Daniel needed a good home. All of 2 years old, she had lived with her mother, with relatives, with family friends and foster parents. Her mother had spent months in jail. Her father, even longer.

The disruptions seemed to take a toll on the child. She could lash out, sometimes against herself.

Last summer, the tumultuous world of Laila Marie Daniel changed again. The state removed her and her sister from their mother and placed them in foster care. Shortly after, they entered the home of Jennifer Rosenbaum. The new foster mom seemed infused with positive energy and ambition — a candidate for the Henry County Commission, Emory law student, and intern at the state Legislature and local juvenile court.

Rosenbaum, 27, had been a foster child herself. Her family had been homeless and her parents were physically abusive to the children. In foster care, she sometimes acted out. But she emerged with a drive to succeed and help children, said her friends and relatives.

Four months after Laila’s move into the Rosenbaum house, the toddler was dead.

Rosenbaum has been charged with murder and child cruelty, though her lawyer asserts the child’s death was likely a tragic accident.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution traced the paths that brought together Laila Marie Daniel and Jennifer Rosenbaum. It reviewed the child’s 600-page file with the state Division of Family and Children Services, obtained through the Georgia Open Records Act. The AJC also obtained police records and spoke to family and friends, state officials and experts in child welfare and abuse.

The AJC’s review found that DFCS missed red flags that might have saved the child’s life. Laila’s death adds another black mark to the checkered history of Georgia’s child protection agency.

“Could this death have been avoided?” said Normer Adams, a former executive director of a group representing children’s homes in Georgia. “Yes.”

Jennifer Rosenbaum seems nothing like the people who are typically charged in the death of a child. She isn’t the drug-addled mother guilty of neglecting her child, or the live-in boyfriend who lashes out, or the father who traps his child in his own mental illness.

She seemed, well, like a very promising foster parent. Caring, committed, involved in her community.

Did she fool everyone?

DFCS usually a step behind

Laila’s troubles began well before she met Jennifer Rosenbaum.

When she was living with her mother, Tessa Clendening, the state was often close behind. DFCS caseworkers responded to a handful of complaints about the care and supervision of Laila and her older sister.

But they didn’t always get in the door, according to the DFCS file.

After the agency opened one case in early 2014, Clendening moved to North Carolina and didn’t leave a forwarding address. DFCS closed the case.

After another complaint, a DFCS caseworker said no one in the home would answer the door. Clendening yelled at the caseworker over the phone. The case was closed.

Clendening told the AJC that she never dodged the agency.

DFCS Director Bobby Cagle said the caseworkers made mistakes, especially when they just walked away when nobody came to the door.

“They just allowed her to be uncooperative and closed the case,” Cagle said.

‘They were the center of my world’

In January of 2015, Laila’s mother was arrested on a charge of conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine. The Spalding County sheriff’s office said it had been listening to a wire-tapped cellphone of a drug dealer when Clendening called the phone. She spent three months in jail before being released on bond, according to Spalding County jail records.

Clendening asserts she’s innocent and that the charge was based on a mixup; the case remains open.

In April of last year, nearly two years after Laila’s birth, DFCS took her and her sister into state custody. They became foster children.

In many ways, Laila was like every other kid. She enjoyed hot dogs, chicken nuggets and strawberries-and-cream oatmeal. She loved playing with her little toy kitchen, and watching the singing puppets on “Yo Gabba Gabba!”

But she started showing signs of aggression, fighting with her sister, pulling hair and sometimes throwing herself on the ground. She was afraid of sudden movements. And she hardly spoke at all, according to the DFCS file.

Clendening, her mother, is a former foster child herself. She acknowledged she’s had some problems but insisted she was not a habitual drug user. Most of all, she said, she loves her kids.

“They were the center of my world. They helped me make it through my day,” said Clendening, 24. “They were always fed and clothed and loved.”

Kim Smith, Laila’s great aunt, also believes Clendening loves her kids but said she she was often absent.

“Myself and the family tried to help her with rehab and parenting classes,” Smith said. But those efforts ended with “her nonparticipation.”

Shortly after Laila and her sister entered foster care, around May of last year, they were at the Henry County Juvenile Court when a law intern introduced herself. The intern recognized their mother’s name. She remembered that years ago, the two had spent time together at a foster children’s shelter.

That intern was Jennifer Rosenbaum.

‘Laila appears to be very happy’

Laila moved in with Jennifer and Joseph Rosenbaum on July 24, 2015. DFCS performed a home evaluation and ran criminal background checks on the couple.

“The Rosenbaums are stable and reliable. They also appear to greatly love children,” said a home evaluation in the DFCS file.

The Rosenbaums loved the girls, several friends and family told the AJC. The girls shared a bunk bed in the home’s second bedroom on a quiet street in McDonough. Rosenbaum helped Laila learn numbers and letters.

DFCS recorded positive changes.

“Laila is doing well and has come a long way. She is able to count to five and recognizes the amounts when counting on fingers,” caseworker Samantha White wrote in her notes on Sept. 2, 2015. “Laila appears to be very happy in the home and moves around comfortably.”

For Jennifer Rosenbaum, this was the culmination of her dream to help foster children, her sister, Summer Wells, told the AJC. That dream had its seeds in Rosenbaum’s own time in Georgia’s foster care system.

Growing up in Henry County in the 1990s, Rosenbaum’s family was sometimes homeless, living on the street, in a tent, or out of a car at truck stops. The children were sometimes beaten, and DFCS removed them in 1997 and placed them in foster care, Wells said.

Rosenbaum was 9 at the time. In foster care, she had a “smart mouth” and sometimes fought with her sister, Wells said.

“When we were younger we did what we wanted,” Wells said.

But Rosenbaum turned her life around and didn’t look back, her sister said.

Wells insists that her sister could not have harmed the girls.

“She wanted to adopt them. She and her husband couldn’t have their own children,” she said. “Why would she kill a child she wanted to take care of for the rest of her life?”

A broken leg, but no investigation

On Oct. 19 of last year, Rosenbaum sent a text message to the DFCS caseworker saying Laila had broken her leg at a gymnastics center, according to the DFCS file.

“She is doing fine by her attitude you would never know anything was wrong,” Rosenbaum said in the text, detailed in the DFCS file. “Laughing playing singing and hasn’t cried once not even when it happened.”

The caseworker did not investigate the broken leg any further, which was a violation of policy. Whenever a foster child suffers a serious injury, the caseworker must file a report that begins an investigation into the cause.

Nov. 17, a Tuesday, was Jennifer Rosenbaum’s 27th birthday and Laila’s last day on earth.

Rosenbaum and her husband, a corrections officer, planned to celebrate with the girls the next weekend. The couple had already begun buying Christmas gifts for them, Wells said.

When Rosenbaum called 911, she told the dispatcher that Laila was choking on some chicken. She said the blockage was out but the little girl’s breathing was slow and her eyes were rolled back into her head, according to the 911 recording obtained by the AJC.

“I’m trying to do CPR. She keeps going white on me,” Rosenbaum told the operator. “I’m hoping I didn’t break her rib. I’ve been pushing hard. I don’t really know how to do this.”

After several minutes, sirens can be heard in the background.

“Yes, I see them,” Rosenbaum tells the dispatcher. “But she’s not breathing.”

‘Injured about her body in its entirety’

Jennifer and Joseph Rosenbaum were arrested Dec. 4. Her arrest warrant says she killed Laila by striking her in the abdomen “with such force the child’s pancreas was transected. The child was believed to enter shock due to the blood loss resulting from the injury.”

“The warrant noted that Laila was “injured about her body in its entirety.”

The GBI briefed the agency on the preliminary results of the autopsy, which has yet to be released. “Laila had severe abdominal trauma over time, since being placed with the Rosenbaums,” according to a DFCS summary of the briefing.

Jennifer Rosenbaum’s attorney, Corinne Mull, said the couple never abused the girl. She said Laila died after Jennifer Rosenbaum performed the Heimlich maneuver and CPR when the child was choking on a chicken tender. The force of the compressions may have caused the injury to the pancreas, Mull said.

Mull attributed the child’s other injuries to what may have been abuse that occurred before her stay with the Rosenbaums or to the general bumps and bruises of childhood play.

After Laila’s death, DFCS reviewed its handling of the entire case. Agency investigators looked into the girl’s broken leg, visiting the gym. The staff told them Laila was not enrolled there. Her sister did go there, and Laila would sometimes accompany her, but Laila sat and watched, they said, according to the file.

But Mull said Laila often ran around the facility and played.

‘Explanations were plausible’

Child welfare experts, who reviewed Laila’s history at the AJC’s request, said they spotted troubling signs in the way DFCS handled the case.

Time and again, they say, people in the child welfare system — DFCS workers, a judge and an assistant district attorney — bent over backward to help Rosenbaum, who was connected with the court, the community and the Legislature.

Several experts pointed to an incident that occurred just before Laila entered the Rosenbaum home last summer. The girls had been staying with foster mother Patricia Lambert, but occasionally visited the Rosenbaums.

Lambert noticed Laila returned from some of those visits with injuries, according to the DFCS file. Lambert took Laila to the Henry County DFCS office to show them the injuries. But no investigation was opened.

Months later, after Laila’s death, DFCS investigators questioned the caseworker and supervisor about their response to Lambert’s concerns.

“They shared that Ms. Rosenbaum’s explanations were plausible,” the DFCS file indicated.

Tom Rawlings, a former state Child Advocate, offered a harsh assessment of the agency’s performance.

“DFCS seems to have given the woman the benefit of the doubt on everything,” he said.

Inexperienced workforce

Cagle, the DFCS head, sat down with the AJC to discuss the girl’s death and the lessons learned. Cagle was appointed 18 months ago to fix what had been a long-trouble agency. He said the agency has made strides. Caseloads are down across the state, and Laila’s caseworker was not overburdened with cases.

The child’s death, he said, did not signal systemic troubles. Rather, Cagle said, the problems with Laila’s case reflected in large part the bad decision-making of a caseworker and her supervisor. Both have been fired.

Some child welfare advocates say they saw larger problems. They say they see too much bad decision-making by inexperienced staff. Laila’s caseworker had two years on the job; her supervisor had been in that post for two years.

Normer Adams, the longtime advocate for children, pointed to the agency’s high rate of employee turnover. DFCS loses one-third of its front-line caseworkers every year.

“That almost guarantees you’ll have an inexperienced staff,” Adams said.

A small mound of dirt

Jennifer Rosenbaum walks around her home with an ankle monitor, a condition of her bond. She cannot leave the state. Her husband, charged with child cruelty, is also out on bond.

Lauren Banks, another sister of Rosenbaum, says she speaks to her daily.

“We try not to focus only on the incident. It’s obviously devastating,” Banks said. “She’s mourning her loss.”

The Facebook page that announced Jennifer Rosenbaum’s candidacy for the Henry County Commission has been taken down. A new Facebook page called “Justice for Laila” has nearly 8,000 members. Rosenbaum’s attorney said some members had posted death threats against her client.

Tessa Clendening, the biological mother of Laila, is living with an aunt and uncle in Clayton County, answering phones for their appliance warranty business.

She said she’s not doing any drugs. She has given birth to another child, a girl, she said, who looks like Laila.

She knows people fault her.

“As bad as DFCS makes me look, think about how good they made Jennifer (Rosenbaum) look,” she said. “Now my little girl is not coming back.”

Laila’s older sister, who is 4, has become more reserved, their mother said. Clendening said she sees her twice a week in the visitation room at the Henry County DFCS office.

“She asked me if there is a swimming pool in heaven,” Clendening said.

Laila is buried in Berea Cemetery, a small burial ground in Hampton. The little mound of dirt has no headstone, though people added some loving touches: a small white cross and Christmas tree for the holiday she never saw, a teddy bear with open arms.

DFCS paid for the burial.

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