McDONOUGH — Laila was sick again. Pictures of Laila grew less frequent. Tessa Clendening told a Henry County court these were the reasons she started recording her conversations with Jennifer Rosenbaum, who along with Joseph Rosenbaum was serving as foster parent to Clendening's daughters, Laila and Millie.
The Rosenbaums have pleaded not guilty to malice murder, felony murder, aggravated battery and child cruelty in Laila Daniel's 2015 death. They are jointly standing trial in Henry County Superior Court.
Jurors heard a recording of one phone call Thursday — the last time Clendening ever spoke to Laila.
Clendening said she had met Jennifer Rosenbaum when they had both been in a shelter. She lost custody of her girls when she failed a drug screen in April 2015, adding she has struggled with addiction since age 16: "I think I'll be working on that forever."
Her first DFCS encounter in 2014 was when Millie wandered out of the house while she was upstairs with Laila. A police officer quickly returned Millie; DFACS offered some safety tips and closed the case.
When Laila was 1, Clendening "got sick and went to the hospital," sending Millie to live with a coworker, Cynthia Tate, and Laila to her own mother. Millie then went with Tate's ex-husband and new wife because "they seemed like good people and I had stuff going on," specifically a probation warrant, and she wanted to get Millie "settled." Clendening went to jail and wasn't clear who had her girls when. Two more foster homes followed.
Finally, Clendening's caseworker "said they had someone I knew who could take the girls so I could complete my case plan. It was Jennifer (Rosenbaum)," who Clendening knew as Jennifer Holcomb from a shelter where they had both lived. "I didn't reach real deep down in my brain" — but, Clendening said, Rosenbaum seemed OK from her Facebook posts.
Rosenbaum told Clendening she had met the girls at Juvenile Court, noting that she worked in the District Attorney's Office and that juvenile offenders used the same courtroom as DFCS, adding, "I wanted to reach out and let you know you're in my prayers."
Clendening responded with thanks, saying how much she missed her girls and calling Rosenbaum "a blessing" because "she could pay attention to them." After scrolling through photos of the Rosenbaums and their dogs, she thought, "If she reached out to me it couldn't have been nothing bad." Besides, Jennifer was in law school.
On Aug. 15, 2015, Rosenbaum texted Clendening to say Laila's day care had called to say she was sick and that she was going to pick her up and that Laila might not be at their next visit. This was the first time Clendening had heard her daughters were in day care.
Rosenbaum texted a photo of Laila at the doctor's office to Clendening, who called her "pitiful but beautifully pitiful. I wish I could be with her."
When Rosenbaum texted that doctors had given Laila an I.V., Clendening again expressed concern and guilt. Rosenbaum called Laila "a trooper" who "didn't even flinch or cry, just said 'ouch.'"
A month later, Rosenbaum texted photos of Millie in gym attire, saying Millie had started gymnastics lessons — again, news to Clendening. All she heard of Laila was that the child had broken her leg by falling off the bars at gymnastics. Again, Rosenbaum remarked at what a "trooper" Laila was. Again, Clendening berated herself for not being there. Rosenbaum texted a photo on Oct. 23, 2015 of Laila, right leg in a thigh-high pink cast, left arm in a black brace.
The following month, Clendening "wondered why (the photos) were mainly pictures of Millie." The few she got of Laila, "you could tell they weren't new pictures." On Nov. 14, she asked Rosenbaum for new pictures of Laila. Rosenbaum said she had "been busy with the doctor" and "had to get her in the mood to take pictures when she wasn't feeling good."
Clendening began to record their conversations "once I started feeling like Laila was sick too much, that they were not sending pictures," adding she wanted to have the recordings to prompt her memory "just in case I needed to."
On the last phone call with her girls, Nov. 16, 2015, Rosenbaum told Clendening that Laila was "not going to talk. She doesn't feel good today." Clendening spoke at length with Millie about flying kites and coloring on their next visit.
Whenever she asked how Laila was doing, Millie would respond, "I'm eating cotton candy." Laila occasionally whimpered softly in the background. "Is there anything else you want to talk about?" Clendening asked.
"Want to talk to Laila?" Millie replied.
Clendening told Laila she was a good girl and reminded her to say her prayers, including one for Mommy. "Jesus loves you."
The women arranged for Clendening and the girls to meet on Nov. 18. The prosecuting attorney asked if that visitation happened.
"No, ma'am," Clendenning said, weeping.
"Because she was dead."