Child-Abuse Deaths Stun New Yorkers
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
We're going to go next to New York City, which is investigating its Child Welfare Agency. Since October, four children have died, allegedly at the hands of abusive parents. The latest case involves seven-year old Nixzmary Brown. Many believe the Administration for Children Services did not do enough to save her life. NPR's Allison Keyes reports.
ALLISON KEYES, reporting:
A steady stream of mourners continues to come to stand in front of the broken apartment where Nixzmary Brown lived. Some kneel in front of a large makeshift memorial of candles, teddy bears and heart wrenching notes, praying for the little girl.
Ms. DIANA RAMIREZ (Brooklyn resident): How you not gonna hear a little girl screaming?
KEYES: Diana Ramirez of Brooklyn is like many who come here. She doesn't believe no one heard Nixzmary's cries for help the night she died. Especially, she says, the families who lived above and below the second-floor apartment, where the child lived with her parents and five siblings.
Ms. RAMIREZ: Yeah, he was beating this little girl and nobody heard it? I don't believe that. They heard it, they just ignored it, they say it's not my business, I'm not gonna get involved.
KEYES: Police say Nixzmary Brown had been starved, beaten and tortured for months by her mother and stepfather. On the night of January 10th, police say her stepfather Cesar Rodriguez, became enraged because she took yogurt from the fridge and broke a computer printer. Police say he stripped the child naked, dunked her underwater in a bathtub, then threw her on the floor in what the family called, its dirty room.
Nixzmary weighed only 36 pounds when she was found dead the next morning. The city's Child Welfare Chief John Mattingly, has called it the worst case of abuse he's seen in his 25-year career. People from Nixzmary's neighborhood turned out for a rally at a storefront church this past weekend. Her second-grade teacher, Jamila Bush, came to talk about the little girl everyone remembers as always smiling.
Ms. JAMILA BUSH (Nixzmary's Second Grade Teacher): When I went to read with her she was so excited. And she started reading for me and all the time she was reading, she would keep reading her book, looking up at me and smiling. You know, and I would tell her, you're doing a great job.
KEYES: Bush and others who knew Nixzmary say her death has been hard on the other children at Public School 256. Roseanne Taylor's(ph) son, Terrell, was in Nixzmary's class.
Ms. ROSEANNE TAYLOR (Parent of classmate of Nixzmary's): Maybe they understand that she's dead but not really fully, they don't know what dead is all about. But, they know she's not coming back, I know that for sure.
KEYES: This case has sparked a strong emotional response in this community. Employees at Nixzmary's school made repeated calls to the Administration for Children Services and she was seen by the agency's social workers and police but was never removed from the home. Three Children Services workers have been suspended and three others have been reassigned for their handling of the case. Nixzmary's parents, Nixzaliz Santiago and Cesar Rodriguez have been charged with second-degree murder. Across town, in Jamaica Queens, Alonzo and Mary Freeman are still mourning the October 25th death of their foster daughter, seven-year-old, Sierra Roberts.
Ms. MARY FREEMAN (Foster parent): She just was a jolly little happy girl. She just liked to play, she liked to joke.
KEYES: Sitting in the dining room of a house cluttered with pictures of their five natural, three adopted, and more than 20 foster children, Mary Freeman looks at pictures of the little girl who called them Mommy and Daddy.
Ms. FREEMAN: To know her and to love her and be around her, you would just enjoy. And the hugs and the kisses, she just, she was just a happy little, happy girl.
KEYES: Alonzo Freeman's eyes glaze with tears as he talks about the child they called Cece(ph).
Mr. ALONZO FREEMAN, (Foster parent): She was my baby. I don't know if I'll ever get over it.
KEYES: Sierra was born addicted to cocaine and lived with the Freemans from the time she was six-weeks old until she was three. The city's Child Welfare Agency then returned her to her natural father, Russell Roberts. He has been charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter over the death. Alonzo Freeman has some advice for other foster parents worried about their former charges.
Mr. FREEMAN: Don't be afraid to ask questions and investigate if you see anything that looks like it's out of place 'cause you're better safe than sorry. Right now, I'm sorry, but as I look back now, I think I should have seen it coming.
KEYES: Alonzo Freeman and many others in New York City, hope all the scrutiny will help other children in abusive situations. Allison Keyes, NPR News.