Agency alerted to child at risk

Grandmother says she called on 'cult'

Baltimore Sun/August 15, 2008

The head of Baltimore's Division of Social Services said yesterday that her agency received two calls from people concerned about the welfare of a 15-month-old boy who police said died while in the care of a religious group, some of whose members have now been charged with murder.

But Molly McGrath, the chief operating officer of DSS, said the complaints about how Javon Thompson was treated while with 1 Mind Ministries were not specific enough to thoroughly investigate. Police said the toddler was denied food and water because he would not say amen after meals.

"We cannot find any record to show that we could have intervened before Javon died," McGrath said. She said records show that DSS received one call in May 2006 - eight months before Javon died - but the caller gave a bad address. The second call came in April of this year, the same month Javon's body was found stuffed in a suitcase in Philadelphia.

But Javon's grandmother, Seeta Khadan-Newton, said she called DSS at least four times between April and December of 2006.

"I spoke to people who would not give me the time of day," she said yesterday. "They bluntly said to me during one call that they needed proof. They said they could not go out. They said I am probably just making it up, and it is just hearsay."

She got far different responses from officials in Philadelphia and New York - two cities where members of the group lived after leaving Baltimore in January 2007 and after police said Javon had been killed. She made those inquiries after police in Philadelphia and Baltimore had opened an investigation into Javon's disappearance.

Khadan-Newton recalled how Philadelphia caseworkers stayed on the phone with her as they ran many versions of the boy's name, hoping he would turn up in a database. In New York City, she said, caseworkers immediately investigated a Brooklyn house.

"In Philadelphia, they were so good," the grandmother said. "I was telling them about all of these aliases [the members of the religious group] were using. Everyone was very cooperative." Later, she learned the group was living in a house in Brooklyn, N.Y. "I made one phone call, and New York was in the house the next day," she said.

Baltimore homicide detectives charged five people this week with first-degree murder in connection with Javon's death, including the boy's mother, Ria Ramkissoon, 21. Also charged are the group's alleged leader, Queen Antoinette, 40; Trevia Williams, 21; Marcus Cobbs, 21; and Steven Bynum, 42. Bynum turned himself in at Baltimore's Central Booking and Intake Center about 8 p.m. Wednesday, said Sterling Clifford, a spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department.

The suspects are members of 1 Mind Ministries, a group city police describe as a cult. In court charging documents, police detail eyewitness accounts from former members who said Javon became "dark and thin" after he was denied food and water. The boy died in December 2006 in West Baltimore, according to police, and members of the group swaddled his tiny body in sheets and packed him into a green suitcase and took it with them to Philadelphia.

Khadan-Newton had concerns about her daughter and grandson for years and said she thinks the death could have been avoided had officials in Baltimore listened to her two years ago when she said first raised an alarm about the group.

"It crushed me because I knew my little baby was in danger and I was reaching out and nobody was concerned about a baby in danger," she said, adding that the people she spoke with would not even take her name or address.

McGrath, the head of the city's department of social services, said the conditions Khadan-Newton described to reporters - such as Javon surrounded by marijuana use and not getting medical attention - would have met her agency's threshold for acting. She said each phone call to her agency should prompt a record to be created.

Citing confidentiality rules, McGrath would not say who made the two calls for which there are records. But she did say that neither of those calls were made by Khadan-Newton.

There were other warnings as well. In Oct. 2006, Tiffany Smith was expelled from the group and later returned with city police to get her two children out of the ministry's East Baltimore rowhouse. Police arrested four members of the group, charging them with pushing an officer.

Smith also said she checked herself into a local hospital after retrieving her children and was interviewed there by a Social Services caseworker. She said that during this interview she told the caseworker about the other children in the rowhouse.

McGrath said her agency is still researching this incident and couldn't comment on it yesterday.

Early this year, Khandan-Newton learned that the religious group, which was traveling with two other children, had moved to Philadelphia.

Sgt. Bob Wilkins, a supervisor in the Philadelphia Police Department's homicide unit, said his detectives investigated and found that his city's Children's Services had taken two children away from the group.

He said detectives tracked the children to their foster care mother and at first the children refused to cooperate. He said the foster mother called them back and the children then told them about how Javon died. He said the children remembered the name of Javon's aunt, who lived in Baltimore, and from there police learned about the house in South Philadelphia where police said the group had briefly stayed and left the suitcase behind.

Police searched that residence and found the suitcase with a body later identified as Javon.

Wilkins said Khandan-Newton was tenacious.

"She was calling everybody," he said, noting that he at one point got a call from the FBI in New York wondering who this woman was and why she was talking about a murder. "I guess she knew something was wrong. All she needed was somebody to believe her. We did."

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