Wednesday, July 6, 2011
When the bough breaks.
“A babe in the house is a wellspring of pleasure, a messenger of peace and love, a resting place for innocence on earth, a link between angels and men.” –Martin Fraquhar Tupper
She had the most beautiful brown eyes, expressive and full of curiosity. But her life was stolen from her before it had even really begun. Her name was Nixzmary Brown. Never heard of her? Neither had I, until about an hour ago.
I’m writing this in the immediate aftermath of the Caylee Marie Anthony case, which has absolutely riveted the entire nation, keeping Americans glued to magazines, the Internet and cable TV for months. The trial ended yesterday with the surprising acquittal of her mother, Casey. While most of us suspect that Casey chloroformed little Caylee and dumped her tiny body in the woods near their suburban Orlando home, the jury was unconvinced.
But as heartbreaking as Caylee’s death is, it doesn’t hold a candle to Nixzmary’s life. By the age of 7, Nixzmary – who lived in Brooklyn, New York – had experienced horrors most of us literally cannot imagine. Nicknamed “Diablo” (The Devil) by her mother and her boyfriend, Nixzmary had been singled out among her siblings as deserving of special treatment.
For months, Nixzmary had been confined to a back room with nothing but a dirty mattress, a wooden chair (to which she was often duct-taped) and a litter box. She was beaten daily with a leather belt. She was not allowed to eat with the family. On the day of her death, Nixzmary was hungry. She got loose and took some yogurt from the refrigerator. Her mother ignored her cries as her boyfriend flew into a rage, dousing Nixzmary with water and pounding her head into the bathtub until she died.
Nixzmary, who should have been enjoying second grade, weighed 36 pounds at time of autopsy.
Nixzmary’s story brought to my mind a similar case, that of Elizabeth Steinberg, also 7, also beaten and starved to death over many months by her “parents,” also in New York City. In both cases, repeated calls had been made to child protective services by teachers, family, friends and neighbors, yet nothing was done. Nixzmary’s case resulted in “Nixzmary’s Law,” in which the state of New York made life without parole the maximum sentence for killing a child “in an especially cruel and wanton manner.”
Lisa Steinberg’s case, which happened in 1987 before the explosion of the Internet and cable, received what was then a huge amount of media attention. (A true crime fan, I confess to owning several books about Lisa’s life.) Her murder was considered all the more shocking because her caretakers were highly-educated professionals (Joel Steinberg an attorney, Hedda Nussbaum a children’s book author). But I’d never heard of Nixzmary until I did a Google search on “parent” “child” “murder.”
And that’s what gets me about the Anthony case. Not just that I believe the killer is going free, but that while millions of Americans have been captivated by the coverage case since Caylee’s remains were discovered in December 2008, it has seemed as if Caylee were the only child to be (allegedly) killed at the hands of a parent. And what’s more: many of these other young victims suffer unspeakable cruelties before they die.
Of course, no one will forget the Jon-Benet Ramsey case, which may never be solved. But, like Caylee, Jon-Benet was a pretty little white girl who lived in the suburbs, and appeared to have been well-treated – even cherished – until her death.
Have you heard of Lydia Schatz? She was one of three Liberian children adopted by a couple in rural Tennessee who belonged to a Fundamentalist Christian sect that demanded “Biblical chastisement.” During a homeschool lesson, 7-year-old Lydia mispronounced a word; as discipline, her parents took turns whipping her with a piece of plastic tubing for hours – until she died of kidney failure. Authorities removed eight other children from the home, several of whom had also been beaten.
Have you heard of Melanie Beltran? Five-year-old Melanie was beaten to death by her mother for throwing up her dinner. But first, Skokie investigators revealed, Melanie had been “routinely” tied up by both parents. She had been forced to eat hot peppers, been burned by cigarettes and made to drink from the toilet. She had seven siblings.
Have you heard of Brittany Jacks? Tatianna Jacks? N’Kiah Fogle? Aja Fogle? Their decomposing bodies were found in the Washington, D.C. apartment of their 33-year-old mother, who starved, choked, and stabbed them. (Demons had told her what to do.)
The deaths of all of these young girls were picked up by their local news outlets; I found out about all of them online. But none of these cases were covered in any detail by the national media. I don’t believe it’s an insult to Caylee’s memory to recognize the fact that these children’s stories were even more tragic than Caylee’s, given that they all suffered for months, or even years, before their deaths.
These little girls were Hispanic, Liberian and African-American. Their families lived in trailer parks and tenements. Some of their parents were unemployed. Some didn't speak English.
And if I didn’t know better, I would think that society – and the media – put a low price on their lives.
US Department of Justice statistics show that almost 37,000 children were murdered in the United States between 1976 and 1994 – most by beating, and most by a parent. Child abuse happens in rich and poor families, in suburbs and in cities, and in every ethnic group.
But doesn’t it seem strange to you that you heard all about Caylee, but nothing about Nixzmary or N’Kiah?
Yeah. Seems strange to me, too.