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Child Abuse Victim Again Galvanizes New Yorkers

The beating death of Nixzmary Brown, 7, is the latest in a string of killings of at-risk youths, followed by more cries for reform.

January 18, 2006|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Nixzmary Brown will be buried today wearing a white lace dress and white gloves. Grieving family members say she looks like a little angel in her coffin.

The 7-year-old was found beaten to death last week in a squalid Brooklyn apartment. Her stepfather, police said, had periodically tied her to a chair, sexually abused her and forced her to eat cat food.

On the night that she died, he was enraged that Nixzmary took yogurt from the refrigerator, police said. He allegedly forced her into a bathtub, where she died from a violent blow to the head.

"I came to pay my respects to this little girl, because what happened to her is so shocking," Nora Baez said Monday as she stood in line in the bitter cold to attend Nixzmary's wake at a Manhattan funeral parlor.

Nixzmary's death has dominated local news for a week, and it continues a grim trend: Every decade, one death seems to rivet New York's attention on the tragedy of child abuse.

In 1987, the death of Lisa Steinberg, a 6-year-old Greenwich Village girl, sparked angry cries for reform of the city's child welfare protection laws.

The 1995 beating and starvation death of Elisa Izquierdo, 6, led to a sweeping overhaul of New York's child welfare policies. City officials created the Administration for Children's Services to monitor the safety of youngsters determined to be at risk. They also authorized $600 million in additional funds to hike caseworker salaries, increase training and cut caseloads.

Now there are similar calls for investigations, political shake-ups and legislative reforms.

"We as a city have failed this child," Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg told reporters soon after Nixzmary's death. "I want to assure all New Yorkers that a full investigation is underway. People will be held responsible for their actions in this tragedy."

Nixzmary was the fourth youngster in the last two months to die while their case was under investigation by New York child welfare workers, city officials said. There were 30 such fatalities last year. The annual number has fluctuated from 22 to 35 over the last 12 years, according to reports by city child welfare agencies.

The details of Nixzmary's final days provide a stomach-turning picture of abuse, according to police and child welfare reports. They also underscore the difficulties of ensuring coordination among the many city agencies charged with protecting children -- even though procedures for doing so are clearly spelled out.

City officials first learned of her case in May, when school officials told a child welfare hotline that Nixzmary had missed 46 days of school. Caseworkers from the Administration for Children's Services visited her mother, Nixzaliz Santiago, 27, and determined that there was no evidence of child abuse.

School officials subsequently reported that the girl was undernourished. Six months later, they told children's services that Nixzmary had come to school with a black eye and a 2-inch gash on her forehead; they said she had missed 16 more days of school.

On Dec. 1, children's services workers again visited the girl's Bedford-Stuyvesant home. Joined by two child abuse detectives from the New York Police Department, they talked to family members and reported that all appeared to be well. A doctor later examined Nixzmary and reported her cut was consistent with a fall, as she had told caseworkers.

Child welfare workers tried to visit the home a week later, but were refused entry by Cesar Rodriguez, 27, the girl's stepfather. Upon learning that Nixzmary had missed another two weeks of school, caseworkers tried again to visit the family, with no luck. The phone was disconnected and there was no reply to notes left under the door.

Caseworkers did not seek a warrant to search the home, an option available to them, and did not have further contact with the family until Jan. 11. Early that morning, they were summoned to the apartment, where Nixzmary's body was found. She was barely 4 feet tall, weighed 36 pounds and appeared to have been submerged underwater as a punishment before being hit on the head, police said.

On Tuesday, a Brooklyn grand jury indicted Santiago on charges of second-degree murder, unlawful imprisonment and reckless endangerment of a child. Rodriguez was indicted on similar charges, as well as sexual abuse and manslaughter in the first degree. Both face 25 years to life in prison if they are convicted, Brooklyn Dist. Atty. Charles J. Hynes said.

The couple's five other children are now in protective custody, officials said.

In the aftermath, city officials are facing tough questions from critics: Should school officials have reported the possible abuse to police as well as child welfare officials? Why did children's services caseworkers not seek a warrant to search the home? Should police detectives have conducted a more aggressive investigation of the family?

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