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In 43 Days, a Future Shattered

A couple of times a week, 19-month-old Rafael Pearson is taken from his nursing home to visit with his grandmother, Sylvia Pearson.
A couple of times a week, 19-month-old Rafael Pearson is taken from his nursing home to visit with his grandmother, Sylvia Pearson. (By Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)

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By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 23, 2007

Rafael Pearson will never know how close he came to a normal life.

He was going to be adopted by his extended family. He was going to grow up in a nice home in the suburbs. He was going to be loved.

All he needed was a safety net in his first fragile weeks, after he was taken from his troubled mother.

Instead, a few days after he was born, he ended up in the hands of Tanya Jenkins.

When Rafael was taken from her 43 days later, he was nearly dead, the victim of a desperate foster parent and a dysfunctional child welfare agency. Beaten and shaken by Jenkins, the baby suffered catastrophic brain damage. He was on life support for days, not expected to survive.

Today, he is 19 months old. He has doughy cheeks, carefree curls and a sweet spot for anyone who'll rub his back.

He also is profoundly disabled. He cannot see. He cannot walk or talk. He cannot hold his head up. He has the mind of a child of two or three months. He is likely to develop cerebral palsy. He lives in a Dunn Loring nursing home for disabled children.

And little change is expected.

Convicted of cruelty to children, Jenkins, 38, will go before a judge in D.C. Superior Court today, facing the possibility of years in prison for what she did to Rafael in fall 2005.

Rafael's story, assembled from interviews and court records, including a review of trial testimony, is larger than Jenkins. There is his mother's history of drugs and the three children she has brought into the world. And there is the child welfare agency, long beset by problems, that did right by the first two children but failed terribly with the third, neglecting to visit even once in the three weeks before the abuse came to light.

And there is the family that has rallied around all three children, not the least Rafael, shrouding him with affection, fighting for his future and calling for meaningful changes in the District's child welfare bureaucracy.

"I want Raffy to make a difference," said his grandmother, Sylvia Pearson.

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