I’ve been heartsick ever since the news came out about the death of Charlenni Ferreira. I can’t stop thinking about her life and what her final moments must have been like. There are no pat solutions for the bureaucratic mishaps that failed to change this young girl’s situation, to save her life. But for all those parents out there, if your kid comes home and tells you a story about abuse, I hope you’ll listen. And act.
Let me tell you a story. Ten or so years ago, when my little sister was about seven or eight, she used to play double-dutch with two girls a couple doors from us. The girls, who had just emigrated with their family from Haiti, were relatives. Or so we thought. One summer day, when they knocked on our door to ask for my sister, I saw a burn mark on the leg of one of the girls. It spanned her little leg and was coated with a mixture of blood and pus. Horrified, I asked her what happened. “I was cooking and I dropped a pot on my leg,” she told me. She wouldn’t meet my eyes. Nobody had taken her to the hospital.
The girls left with their sidewalk chalk and I stood from the porch and watched them play. In the next few weeks, some more information came out. Turns out her mother, who still lived in Haiti, had sent her to live with this particular family in America. She did their cooking, their cleaning – any work they wanted, which explained why she was so often interrupted in play and so rarely allowed out. Years later, I read this article in Time Magazine on restevak, a Haitian tradition of child slavery and immediately thought of her. I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if I had somehow managed to report the case to to someone who cared. When I told my parents about the case, they, like so many, shook their heads, tsk-tsked and told me it wasn’t my business. And besides my parents, who else was there for a teenager to tell?
None of your business. That’s been the neighborhood refrain for as long as I can remember. Laotian mother in the backyard lashing her children with bamboo canes until they bleed? None of our business. Senior citizen volunteer at the library messing with the little girls? None of our business. That’s just what happens when you get a neighborhood like Olney where almost everyone is brand-new to the country and the last thing they want is involvement with government agencies. It’s a whole new level of the “no snitching” rule.
Which brings us to the case of 10-year old Charlenni Ferreira. What do we know about her? She lived on the 4700 block of C street in Feltonville, a stone’s throw from my block. She was nearing her 11th birthday. She died this past Wednesday, after an ambulance was called at 10:30 AM. A gash in her head was filled with gauze and covered up with a hair weave. Her body showed numerous signs of physical and sexual abuse. Her arm was broken, as was her pelvis. There were injures to her vaginal and anal areas. She died at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children later that morning from blunt force to her chest, which caused a lung to collapse. Seasoned police officer refused to look at photos from her autopsy. All accounts point to a little girl who lived a too-short, too-hard life.
What else do we know? We know that her “neighbors [say] they never saw signs to suggest that she was being abused by her family.” The ones interviewed may not have, but I would bet money someone on that block knew something was horribly wrong. Her playmates for one.
“She liked Hannah Montana just like me,” said Charlenni’s friend and classmate Merlanny Durah, 10, as her dad dropped her off to place flowers at the growing memorial for Charlenni.
“Sometimes she would talk to me and just cry.”
I’m guessing at least some of these kids told their parents who shook their heads and said, it’s none of our business, sweetheart. Her classmates knew because she told them. She told them. But nothing happened.
Charleeni’s classmates were there, and they told Action News she would confide in them about the abuse she was suffering at home.
“She said her stepmom pulled her hair, abused her, did so many mean things to her,’ said Cheyenne Roundtree.
Another classmate said Charleeni confided in her that she was being raped by her stepbrother.
“Her brother took her upstairs one time, ‘You better come upstairs cause I need to talk to you,’ and raped her upstairs in her room,” said Joceyln Martinez.
Both girls said Charleeni begged them not to tell anyone.
And it wasn’t just kids, either. The adults knew too. Adults with the potential to make a difference, to save a life. There was that nurse back in 2006. Notes one blogger “There were so many potential players in what could have been the race to save Charlenni, and not the march to bury her.” And DHS and its contractor agencies? Someone out there failed her, writes Jeff Deeney. How much longer? How many more little kids have to die? This wasn’t someone who slipped through the cracks. She was on the radar. She was on the radar of school officials, neighbors and friends. Not everyone could’ve known how bad the abuse was, but it was apparent enough that concerns were voiced. And then forgotten. Something isn’t working.