If you don’t live in New York City and its vicinity, you probably haven’t heard the story of the 7-year-old Brooklyn girl Nixzmary Brown.
I am writing about it because of the resounding failure of all the adults involved in her life: her mother and stepfather (who killed her), her teachers, case workers from Administration of Child Services (ACS), and other family members and friends. This little girl’s life could have been saved had some grown-up stepped in before it was too late; sadly, no one did enough during her short life and now everyone is making excuses after her death.
What were you doing on the cold winter’s night of January 10, 2006? If you are a parent like I am, you might have given your child a bath, played a few games, or read a book before bedtime. This is a normal and healthy evening for a child. Unfortunately, Nixzmary’s stepfather Cesar Rodriguez was doing something different; he was administering the last of his routine beatings to this 7-year-old girl, and this one killed her.
You might ask: where was Nixzmary’s mother Nixzalis Santiago at this moment (and during the years of abuse)? That’s a great question, because it is not clear why she never intervened over the years. There is evidence, provided by Rodriguez himself, that the mother couldn’t handle the child. He said in a jailhouse interview that she was a “bad girl” who always taunted her little brother and sister, that she was “uncontrollable” and thus he was forced to beat her for what he says he told her “was for your own good.”
No one can be sure how Nixzmary behaved in that Brooklyn apartment, but we know Rodriguez would tie her up at night, forcing her to use the cat’s litter box for a bathroom. This poor child was neglected, abused, and ultimately died at the hands of this man who, even after her death, cannot admit that he was wrong to beat her “with a clenched fist” because he believes he was teaching her discipline.
Now the story gets even uglier because ACS was investigating Nixzmary’s case for over a year. One case worker repeatedly checked on the child, even going to her apartment for a visit, but Rodriguez turned the woman away. Obviously, a person had to initially report Nixzmary’s situation to someone at the agency, but the fact is that nothing ever came of it more than reports that went nowhere. Perhaps, as the case worker suggested, her hands were tied by red tape, but in a possible life and death situation shouldn’t there be alternatives?
Didn’t her teachers recognize the signs of abuse? Couldn’t they tell from her sullen and quiet behavior that she was a troubled seven year old? What about her mother Nixzalis, who obviously knew something about her husband’s violent behavior but did nothing to stop it? Even the rest of the family (aunts, uncles, cousins) and friends knew something terrible was going on, that Cesar Rodriguez had a violent temper and hit the child frequently, but not one of them tried to put a stop to it.
By now you get a good idea that the “system” doesn’t work. The system I refer to is the method of reporting suspected cases of child abuse here in New York City. Anyone (teacher, parent, neighbor, friend) can call ACS and make an “anonymous” report of “suspected child abuse.” What happens after this is a maddening process that is stuck in the investigative phase sometimes for weeks, months or, as in this case, years. The case worker visits the school, the home, tries to interview the child and adults involved, and then makes a report. What happens to that report after that is debatable, but in this case it seems no one took notice of something wrong or did anything to stop the abuse.
It is very clear to me that children who are under the threat of violence or abuse cannot wait for the system. How can we expect an investigation (that takes so long and mostly goes nowhere) to save a child’s life? I believe something drastic has to be done and it has to happen immediately. Although Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, says he is “investigating the situation,” I believe that he should start immediately changing the system. The first step should be that all suspected cases of child abuse are reported immediately to the police department (even if Children’s Services is notified). Since there is no question that abusing a child is a crime, why not call in the police as we would with any other crime?
If the NYPD were called to Mr. Rodriguez’s apartment, he wouldn’t have so easily turned them away. When Rodriguez refused to let that case worker in, he probably had little Nixzmary tied up sitting in her own urine on top of a cat litter box. Maybe he had just beaten her, and the police officers could have made an arrest right there (ostensibly circumventing the lengthy ACS process and thus saving Nixzmary’s life).
I fervently believe that children are our most precious resource, and they are the hope of a better world to come. I understand that this one case is not isolated, that there are children being abused the world over, yet I weep for Nixzmary Brown because her case is such a senseless loss; it is also a microcosm, illuminating the need to protect children everywhere. This includes protecting them from starvation, AIDS, poverty, and war. All of these things are daunting challenges, but it is up to adults everywhere to say that this inhumane treatment of children is unacceptable anywhere on this planet.
Nixzmary is just one lost child, yet we can do something in her memory. Just as we have effectively instituted an Amber Alert system that has saved many children across the country who have been abducted (in honor of the name of a lost child), we can do something equally powerful with a Nixzmary Alert here in New York (and hopefully elsewhere). This alert will signal law enforcement to immediately investigate reported instances of child abuse and empower them to remove the suspected abuser immediately from the home.
I hope we can do this before it’s too late to save the next child and the one after that. If we don’t act, then we as a society are just as guilty as Cesar Rodriguez and all the other abusers. That will not just be an outrage — that will be a crime.