Children's Stories

Wednesday, September 12, 2001

In addition to the case of Sylvester Brown, The Washington Post documented the cases of eight children who died after police or social workers conducted incomplete investigations or ignored signs of danger from 1993 through 2000. The deaths occurred after the children's families came to the attention of the District's child protection system or were under the watch of social workers. These accounts are based on interviews and records from the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency, the D.C. Child Fatality Review Committee, D.C. Superior Court, the medical examiner's office and the police department:

Cecelia Maria Rushing

May 5, 1991-Nov. 3, 1993

Blunt force trauma

"She was a perfect little baby," recalled Cecelia's godmother, Bernice Kareem. Kareem and her boyfriend, Purcell Campbell Jr., cared for the toddler while her mother lived on the streets. The mother later sent Cecelia to an aunt, Darnella Adams, who had a history of violence and mental illness. Neighbors soon heard cries coming from Adams's apartment. They called 911 several times, but police "failed to adequately pursue the matter," according to a prosecution memorandum filed in court.

Two months later, on Nov. 3, 1993, Adams shook Cecelia when she wet her pants, then slammed her against a wall, killing her. An autopsy showed that her brain was swollen, her liver lacerated. Adams pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. Before the mother had sent Cecelia to live with Adams, Kareem notified authorities that the mother was using her welfare checks to buy drugs. Kareem feared for Cecelia's safety. But social workers never came to investigate, according to Kareem, and the mother eventually sent her daughter to Adams.

"Everybody kept saying that Cecelia got lost in the system," Kareem said recently. "That's not what happened. The system lost Cecelia."

Rhonda Morris

July 6, 1991-Feb. 4, 1995

Asphyxia and blunt force trauma

Rhonda Morris was burned with cigarettes, strangled and beaten to death by a cousin. Seven government agencies made mistakes that contributed to her death. Child and Family Services received repeated reports that Rhonda and her siblings were being left alone. When the agency opened a neglect case, it provided little monitoring.

Rhonda was left with the cousin, Aaron L. Morris, 19, who was eventually convicted of involuntary manslaughter. He had been accused several years earlier of striking and biting Rhonda's sister. He admitted to the abuse, but the D.C. corporation counsel's office declined to pursue the abuse complaint. After Rhonda wet her pants, Morris choked and beat the child. Rhonda then crawled into her bed and died.

Devonta Young

Sept. 21, 1994-Aug. 20, 1996

Child abuse syndrome

A doctor at Greater Southeast Community Hospital examined the second-degree burns on Devonta's foot and notified Child and Family Services that the little boy was being abused. "It was a clear-cut case," said Michelle Shelly, a pediatrician who also examined Devonta.

On Nov. 9, 1995, the case was assigned to a Child and Family Services social worker. She interviewed the boy's mother, Rose Young, who said her son had burned his foot in bath water. The social worker told Young to let the water run before placing children in the tub. The worker then closed the complaint as "unsupported."

In subsequent months, Devonta suffered beatings by fists, a slipper and a belt before he died.

The fatality committee criticized the investigation, saying, "There was no indication that other household members, relatives or neighbors were interviewed prior to closing the case."

Young was acquitted of murder but found guilty of cruelty to children and sentenced to 40 months to 10 years in prison.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company