ABANDONED TO HER FATE

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ELISA IZQUIERDO LIKED TO DANCE, WHICH IS ALMOST TOO perfect. Fairy tales, especially those featuring princesses, often include dancing, although perhaps not Elisa's favorite merengue. Fairy-tale princesses are born humble. Elisa fit that bill: she was conceived in a homeless shelter in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn and born addicted to crack. That Elisa nevertheless had a special, enchanted aura is something the whole city of New York now knows. "Radiant," says one of her preschool teachers, remembering a brilliant smile and flashing black eyes. "People loved her," adds another. "Everybody loved her." And, unlikely as it may seem, there was even a prince in Elisa's life: a real scion of Greece's old royalty named Prince Michael, who was a patron of the little girl's preschool. He made a promise to finance her full private-school education up to college, which is about as happily ever after as this age permits.

Fairy-tale princesses, however, are not bludgeoned to death by their mothers. They are not violated with a toothbrush and a hairbrush, and the neighbors do not hear them moaning and pleading at night. Last week, two months before her seventh birthday, Elisa Izquierdo lay in her casket, wearing a crown of flowers. The casket was open, which was an anguished protest on someone's part; no exertion of the undertaker's art could conceal all Elisa's wounds. Before she smashed her daughter's head against a cement wall, Awilda Lopez told police, she had made her eat her own feces and used her head to mop the floor. All this over a period of weeks, or maybe months. The fairy tale was ended.

America dotes on fairy tales and likes to think it takes action on nightmares. When the story of Elisa's death hit the news last week, New Yorkers and people across the country remembered the Kitty Genovese murder in 1964, and took to task all the neighbors who had known too much and said nothing. But, it turned out, many others had not been silent: Elisa's slow, tortured demise had been reported repeatedly. Over the six years of her life, city authorities had been notified at least eight times. And so outrage focused on the child-welfare system. How did it happen, the public wondered angrily, that Elisa's case was known to the system, and yet the system so shamefully failed her?

The Child Welfare Administration, which handles cases of abuse in New York City, first heard of Elisa on Feb. 11, 1989, the day of her birth. Her mother was a crack addict whose addiction was indirectly responsible for her pregnancy: she had lost her apartment, and in Brooklyn's Auburn Place homeless shelter she began a romance with Gustavo Izquierdo, who worked at the shelter as a cook. As her pregnancy progressed, Awilda was so lost in the pipe that relatives managed to wrest custody of her first two children, Rubencito and Kasey, from her. The social workers at Woodhull Hospital took one look at Elisa's tiny, crack-addicted body and immediately assigned custody to the father. Following standard procedure, they also alerted the CWA.

Perhaps to his own surprise, Izquierdo--who had emigrated from Cuba hoping to teach dance--turned out to be a wonderful father. At first there were panicky calls to female acquaintances about diapers and formula, but eventually he mastered the basics. Every morning he would iron a dress for Elisa and put her beautiful hair into braids or pigtails. When she was four, he rented a Queens banquet hall for a party marking her baptism. Says a friend, Mary Crespo: "She was his life. He would always say Elisa was his princess."

It was through her father's efforts that the princess found her prince. Izquierdo took parenting classes at the local ywca, and he enrolled one-year-old Elisa in the Y's Montessori preschool. She was a favorite pupil. Says the school's then director, Phyllis Bryce: "She was beautiful, radiant. She had an inner strength and a lot of potential for growth." So fond of both father and daughter were the Montessori staff members that when Izquierdo fell behind on tuition, they recommended his daughter to Prince Michael of Greece.

Michael will probably never ascend his country's throne, since the monarchy was abolished in 1974. But he still dispenses royal charity. After an aide established a connection with the Montessori school, the faculty introduced Michael to Elisa. On the day he arrived in Brooklyn, he would later remember, "[Elisa] jumped into my arms. She was a lively, charming, beautiful girl. She was so full of love." The prince visited several times, bringing stuffed animals or clothes; the little princess responded with thank-you notes and pictures. Michael's most handsome offer arrived in late 1993: he would pay Elisa's full tuition, through 12th grade, at the Brooklyn Friends School.

But running parallel with the fairy tale was the nightmare. In 1991 Awilda petitioned for, and was granted, unsupervised visitation rights with her daughter. The mother had already regained custody of her two older children; she seemed to have effected a miraculous recovery. In December 1990 social workers signed an affidavit stating that she had given up drugs, married a man named Carlos Lopez and settled at a permanent address. "Both [Lopezes] are willing to go for random drug tests," the affidavit read. "They never miss appointments with the agency, and they are always on time. Mr. Lopez is supportive...He appears to be gentle and understanding."

That last was a grave misjudgment. Carlos Lopez, who did maintenance work, was solicitous only in public. At night neighbors heard dishes, pots and pans crashing against walls. In January 1992, a month after Awilda gave birth to his second child, Carlos stabbed her 17 times with a pocketknife, putting her in the hospital for three days. According to a neighbor, the attack occurred in front of Elisa, during a weekend visit. Carlos served two months in jail and then, neighbors say, resumed beating his wife--and his visiting stepdaughter.

Elisa's life became an excruciating alternation of happiness and horror. The four-year-old took the Friends School's screening examination and passed. But according to Montessori teacher Barbara Simmons, she also began telling people that her mother had locked her in a closet. On one occasion she volunteered, "Awilda hits me. I don't want to go to Awilda." Montessori principal Bryce says she reported suspected abuse to both the Brooklyn Bureau of Community Services and a child-abuse hot line--the CWA's second warning about Elisa. In response, Bryce has said, child-welfare workers made several visits to the Lopez home, "and then stopped, as they usually do."

Izquierdo apparently knew about the mistreatment. A neighbor told the New York Times that Elisa would wake up screaming in the night, that although toilet trained, she had begun to urinate and defecate uncontrollably and that there were cuts and bruises on her vagina. In 1992 Izquierdo petitioned the family court to deny Awilda custodial rights, but fate intervened before the court could act on his request. By late 1993, already ill with cancer, he was planning to take Elisa to Cuba, and perhaps hoping to leave her there permanently. Tickets were bought, but he became too ill to travel, and on May 26 Izquierdo died.

AWILDA IMMEDIATELY FILED FOR permanent custody. A cousin of Izquierdo's, Elsa Canizares, challenged the petition, alleging that Lopez was insane and abused the child. Bryce wrote in a letter to family court judge Phoebe Greenbaum that "Elisa was emotionally and physically abused during the weekend visitations with her mom . Teachers' observation notes are available." Bryce also enlisted the help of Prince Michael, who added his own letter.

Canizares arrived for the June 1994 custody hearing alone. Awilda, by contrast, brought a small army. Her lawyer that day was from the Legal Aid Society, which maintained that its caseworkers had visited the Lopezes and found that "Elisa expressed a strong desire to live with her mother" and her siblings. Also backing Awilda was the CWA, which Judge Greenbaum has indicated had been monitoring the family for more than a year--the agency's third contact with Elisa. Finally there was Project Chance, a federally funded parenting program for the poor run by a man named Bart O'Connor.

When O'Connor met her in 1992, Awilda had seemed "an easily excitable woman," but one who was "very lively, very vibrant and loved her children beyond belief." She dutifully attended parenting classes and sought extra advice. There were setbacks, during which she returned to drugs and abandoned the children. But she recovered--"The kids seemed happy, and the house was immaculate." When Awilda asked O'Connor to help her get Elisa back, he had his doubts: "She was just learning to handle five kids. I thought another kid might be too much." But, after all, he had just given her a progress award, so he vouched for her to the court. In September Judge Greenbaum awarded full custody to Awilda, directing the CWA to observe the family for a year. Last week, hounded by the press, Greenbaum released a statement that read in part, "It is any judge's worst nightmare to be involved in a case in which a child dies."

Especially, it can be assumed, when a child dies slowly, by torture. In September, Awilda removed Elisa from the Montessori school and enrolled her in Manhattan's Public School 26. The Daily News reports that on arrival, she seemed a fairly happy girl, one who shared make-believe bus trips with other children during lunch hour. But she soon folded up into herself. The school's principal and social worker, noting that she was often bruised and had trouble walking, reported the matter directly to a deputy director of CWA's Manhattan field division, in what would be CWA's fourth notification. School district spokesman Andrew Lachman says the official allegedly replied that the case was "not reportable" owing to insufficient evidence. School staff then visited the Lopez apartment. To their surprise, Awilda "was very happy to see them," says Lachman, and there were no signs of abuse.

O'Connor, however, was regretting his recommendation to the judge. He received a series of hysterical phone calls from Awilda complaining that Elisa was soiling herself and drinking from the toilet and had cut off her hair. Finally she asked O'Connor to take Elisa away. Convinced the girl's symptoms had existed prior to her contact with Awilda but were now driving her mother over the edge, he rushed to the apartment. "You could smell urine and see she had defecated everywhere," he says. "Her toys were thrown around. There were feces smeared on the refrigerator."

O'Connor claims he called Elisa's CWA caseworker, who told him he was "too busy" to come by. Moreover, O'Connor says the caseworker never responded to this fifth appeal to CWA, despite repeated subsequent calls. O'Connor took the Lopezes to a city hospital for psychiatric counseling, and Awilda seemed to calm down somewhat. To O'Connor's dismay, however, she repeatedly avoided signing a release that would allow him to send his observations to the city agency. By last July she had dropped out of touch entirely.

There was a reason for that. "Drugs, drugs, drugs--that's all she was interested in," says neighbor Doris Sepulveda, who watched the Lopezes trying to sell a child's tricycle outside their building. Another neighbor, Eric Latorre, recalls seeing the whole family out at 2 a.m. as Awilda sought crack. Awilda had reportedly come to believe that Elisa, whom she called a mongoloid and filthy little whore, had been put under a spell by her father--a spell that had to be beaten out of the child. Neighbors, some of whom say they called the authorities, later told the press of muffled moaning and Elisa's voice pleading, "Mommy, Mommy, please stop! No more! No more! I'm sorry!" Law-enforcement authorities have provided a reason for those cries: they say Elisa was repeatedly sexually assaulted with a toothbrush and a hairbrush. When her screams became too loud, Awilda turned up the radio.

Elisa stopped attending school, and neighbors say they saw less and less of her. On Nov. 15, Carlos Lopez was jailed again for violating his parole agreement. And on Nov. 22, the day before Thanksgiving, all that was twisted in Awilda apparently snapped. One of her sisters, quoted in the New York Times, reported a chilling phone conversation with her that night: "She told me that Elisa was like retarded on the bed, not eating or drinking or going to the bathroom. I said, 'Take her to the hospital, and I'll take care of your other kids.' She said she would think about it after she finished the dishes."

The next morning Awilda called Francisco Santana, a downstairs neighbor. "She was crying, 'I can't believe it, tell me it's not true,'" he says. When he arrived at her apartment, she showed him Elisa's motionless body. He put his hand to the child's cold forehead, pronounced her dead and spent the next two hours pleading with Awilda to call the police. When he finally called himself, he says, she ran to the apartment roof and had to be restrained from jumping. When the police arrived, she confessed to killing Elisa by throwing her against a concrete wall. She confessed that she had made Elisa eat her own feces and that she had mopped the floor with her head. The police told reporters that there was no part of the six-year-old's body that was not cut or bruised. Thirty circular marks that at first appeared to be cigarette burns turned out to be impressions left by the stone in someone's ring. "In my 22 years," said Lieut. Luis Gonzalez, "this is the worst case of child abuse I have ever seen."

O'Connor sits in his Brooklyn office and fields calls from the media. "We made a mistake," he says grimly. "We will try to make sure this never happens again." Looking back, he says, "I should have thrown bombs in the CWA's doorway." The initials themselves infuriate him. At least, he says, "we will say our mea culpa. We're not going to run behind confidentiality laws and not admit we've made a mistake."

He is referring to an aspect of the tragedy's aftermath that has dumbfounded the city. The people of New York could do nothing about Awilda's drug-induced delusions or her timid neighbors. But they wanted an accounting from the CWA. Instead, Executive Deputy Commissioner Kathryn Croft has steadfastly maintained that state confidentiality laws designed to protect complainants prevent her from revealing any details of a case. Thus the public may never know how many cries for help the agency actually recorded or what it did about them. It may never know whether the CWA really made an extended effort to observe Awilda before making a recommendation to Judge Greenbaum--or whether a caseworker was really "too busy" to return a call.

What the public could surmise, however, was that something was amiss. Last week someone leaked an Oct. 10 letter from CWA commissioner Croft to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, complaining that city staff cuts make it impossible for her to train child-abuse caseworkers or even measure their competence. And that is the least of it. The city, state and Federal Government have cut one-sixth from CWA's $1.2 billion budget. While Croft estimates her average staff member's case load at 16.9, some workers at the agency's Queens branch put theirs at 25, a number that almost precludes meaningful long-term investigations. "There are no bodies available to do the work," says Bonnie Bufford, a supervisor in a Queens child-protective-services unit. Claims Gail Nayowith, executive director of the Citizens' Committee for Children: "Case loads are rising. Investigations take longer, and some very important programs don't exist . This child and her family should have got services. With appropriate interventions, services and follow-up, [Elisa] would be alive."

But she is not alive. At her funeral, the Rev. Gianni Agostinelli told mourners that "Elisa was not killed only by the hand of a sick individual, but by the impotence of silence of many, by the neglect of child-welfare institutions and the moral mediocrity that has intoxicated our neighborhoods." Later, Elisa was laid to rest in the Cypress Hills Cemetery in Queens. There had been discussion about her body: the Izquierdo side of her family wanted to determine its fate, but so did the Lopez side. And it seems that mortuaries, like city bureaucracies, have rules for such situations. Regardless of the circumstances, the custody of the body goes to the mother.