Appeals court says family of murder victim can sue Erie County

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – A state appeals court is giving the family of Laura Cummings, a North Collins woman who was murdered by her mother, a second chance at suing Erie County for failing to protect her, despite reports of physical abuse.

Sheriff’s detectives once described the murder of Cummings, a young woman with mental and physical challenges, as one of the most brutal they had ever seen. The few people who saw the inside of the family’s apartment on Sherman Avenue called it a “chamber of horrors.”

But their subsequent investigation of Cummings’ murder, on January 21, 2010, would uncover evidence that Laura’s siblings were also brutalized, and Cummings’ estate filed a lawsuit accusing officials from Erie County Adult Protective Services of neglecting Laura, by their inaction.

“It is Adult Protective Services, and we have said all along, the name says what it is supposed to do. They are supposed to protect adults,” says attorney John Loss, who represents the Cummings estate. “They are supposed to serve adults, and that is what we want to explore. Did that happen here?”

Laura was so brutalized by her own family members that she ran away, more than once, and neighbor Caroline Lee remembers what happened when county sheriff’s deputies were called.

“They even picked Laura up, the police, and they said they couldn’t do nothing about it, and took her back home to that house.”

The family claims, Erie County missed so many opportunities to save Laura’s life. Her brother Richard Cummings was in North Carolina when neighbors urged him to report the abuse to Erie County authorities, but caseworkers from Adult Protection Services claimed they found no evidence of abuse.

Cummings was frustrated by the inaction, saying, “I’d be happy to let, you know, to have people understand that they need to take their jobs more serious, and do what they need to do, and not just collect a paycheck, and collect everyone’s tax money.”

But in July of 2012, a state judge dismissed the family’s lawsuit against Erie County, agreeing with the county’s claim of “governmental immunity.” But Monday, the Appellate Division for the State Supreme Court’s Fourth Judicial Department, overruled the the judge, sending the case back to state court for trial.

Attorney Terrence Connors, who also represents Cummings’ estate, says the case against the county could be an eye opener.

“They didn’t follow their own policies and procedures. They did not do what is necessary, they didn’t take that step required to protect someone who is an adult that needs these kinds of services, someone like Laura who desperately needed this kind of help did not get it when she should have gotten it.”

The case led to a public outcry about Social Services in Erie County, and investigations by state lawmakers, leading to a package of new legislation, collectively called “Laura’s Law.”

While “Laura’s Law” has not been adopted by state lawmakers, Rhonda Frederick, the Chief Operating Officer for People, Inc., believes Laura’s case has left a legacy. State officials set up the “Justice Center,” a multi-agency task force to help protect people with developmental disabilities.

Frederick says the Justice Center gathers reports of abuse or neglect involving people with special needs, and forwards the reports to the appropriate agencies.

“Someone in the community could have called the Justice Center, and they could have alerted an agency that provides services to people with disabilities.”

Frederick truly believes, if the Justice Center had been around four years ago, it could have made a difference for Laura Cummings, and her siblings.

County officials are not commenting on the appeals court ruling.

Laura’s mother Eva Cummings is serving a 50-year sentence for second degree murder, and her brother Luke Wright was sentenced to 40 years in prison for assault, rape, and sodomy.

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