Abused brothers failed by family, system

Dennis Boozer of Irvington, N.J. tying a balloon to the fence of188 Parker Street in Newark, N.J, Saturday where a memorial shrine was created in front of the house where one boy was found dead and two others starving last week.

DITH PRAN/The New York Times
Published: Sunday, January 12, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 12, 2003 at 1:08 a.m.
NEWARK, N.J. - Melinda Williams' sons always seemed to end up in the basement.
When Williams' twins were 3 years old, a friend, Gloria Anderson, went to visit them on 18th Street here. "When I got there, she had them locked up in the basement," Anderson said. "They were all eaten up with bugs."
Two years later, when the boys and their mother were living in Irvington, another friend went to visit there, and again found the boys in a basement. "They didn't see daylight," the friend, Faith Jones, said.
The four sons of Melinda Williams were shuffled to the bottom of life by a mother who, even by the accounts of friends and relatives, had a serious drinking problem and lacked the wherewithal to get her 7-year-old twins enrolled in school, keep them properly clothed, or even celebrate their birthdays. At the age of 3, the twins had never been to a playground, family friends say, and were scared of pictures on a movie screen.
In yet another basement, this one in the home of their mother's cousin, Sherry L. Murphy, three of Williams' children were found last weekend. The decomposing body of one of the twins, Faheem, was found wrapped in a blanket and stuffed in a purple plastic storage container. His twin, Raheem, and their 4-year-old brother, Tyrone Hill, were locked in a nearby room, emaciated and with scars of burns on their bodies.
The police have charged Murphy with child endangerment. On Friday night, authorities arrested Murphy's 16-year-old son, Wesley, and charged him with the aggravated assault of Faheem, and the endangerment of Faheem's two brothers.
Wesley Murphy told investigators that the boy died after he hit him in the stomach while playing in September, according to two city officials. Wesley Murphy said he and his mother tried to hide the death by keeping the boys in the basement and telling people the three brothers had been sent down South, the officials said. The fourth brother, Fuquan, is in a residential care center in New York.
The discovery of the gruesome case brought to light the desperate lives of children at the mercy of troubled adults and a slew of government agencies with their own troubled relations. In the boys' short, brutal journey to the basement, it seems clear, relatives ignored their moral obligation and government fumbled its legal obligation.
Those failures ensured that no one would put together the full picture of the boys' lives until it was too late.
Lives in a tailspin For several years in the 1990s, state child protection caseworkers routinely visited Williams and her children, apparently unaware that county prosecutors had an outstanding warrant for her arrest on charges of child endangerment. She had been accused of burning with a cigarette a child for whom she was baby-sitting in 1996.
Williams, 30, apparently never enrolled her 7-year-old twins in school. Newark school officials say they had no record that the boys existed, even though other agencies were in regular contact with the family.
The case has gripped this struggling city, which calls itself the Renaissance City. It has shaken New Jersey's long-troubled child welfare system, as officials in the administration of Gov. James E. McGreevey try to wrest reform from the plight of the brothers.
"They have suffered from Day 1 as unwanted and uncared for," said Newark's mayor, Sharpe James. "It's not time for finger-pointing. It's a time to ask, 'How did we all fail?' "
On the birth certificates for Raheem and Faheem Williams, like those of nearly 70 percent of the children born in Newark, the space for a father's name was filled in with two words: "Not Given."
Their mother was 23 when they were born in June 1995. At age 15, Williams had had her first child, a girl put in foster care and later adopted. Four years later, she had a son, Fuquan. The twins came four years after that. Three years later, Williams gave birth to a fourth son, Tyrone.
"She couldn't take care of children," said Anderson, "but she kept having them."
Anderson and others who know Williams describe her as mentally unstable, given to lying and sometimes violent when drunk.
"I don't know what the problem was," said Anderson's daughter Latonjia, 34. "But she would talk real fast. She'd say things that were off the wall. She was a habitual liar."
She said Williams was also a heavy drinker. "It was serious," she said. "She had to wake up to a beer."
In the late 1980s, the Anderson and Williams families lived in the same building in Newark's Central Ward. Gloria Anderson said Williams' mother "always told me to look out for Melinda because her mind isn't right."
When Williams' mother died in the mid-1990s, Melinda Williams began relying on the Anderson family for support. The child welfare record released Friday by McGreevey documents the lives of Williams and her children in a tailspin.
7/4/96: "Mother left the children 5 years and 11 months alone."
10/28/97: "Mother did not have furniture, housing considered marginal." "Mom lived in four different apartments in 11 months."
The record contains references to possible drug use "by either the mother or her paramour or both." It also indicates that the children were not attending school and that Fuquan had an untreated injury.
Eventually Williams left her children with Gloria Anderson, who said she bought them clothes and toys they never had, and enrolled Fuquan, the eldest brother, in a special education class in East Orange. But she said the boys showed the effects of having been stashed in a basement in Newark and other spare quarters by a mother who wanted them out of the way.
"These boys were sweet and kind," Anderson said, "but they were scared. They were always scared and acted like you were going to hit them."
Latonjia Anderson said the twins, then about 4, were very close. "When one was going somewhere, he would say 'Come on,' and they would hold hands," she said. "They would call my mother 'Mommy.' "
After about a year, Gloria Anderson said, she could no longer care for the boys in a crowded house where her daughter and several grandchildren also lived. She said that the only money she had to pay for the Williams boys' care was $576 a month in Social Security disability payments because Fuquan suffered from a mental disability.
The boys wound up back with their mother, who moved in with Sherry Murphy and her five children. Melinda's mother and Sherry's mother had been sisters, and the first cousins had a complicated relationship.
Murphy, 41, was like a big sister to Williams, who is 11 years younger, relatives said. As a teenager Murphy had lived with Williams' family, after clashing with her own mother. Friends and relatives described her as savvier, prettier and better at navigating life than her cousin. "Sherry seemed to have a hold over Melinda," said Clarence Gaddie, a cousin of both women.
Others said Murphy had a more sinister motive in taking in Williams and her children. "She wanted the kids to move in with her because she wanted the kids' checks," Gloria Anderson said.
Unlike her cousin, Murphy had some success getting jobs. She worked as a go-go dancer, briefly as a receptionist at a dental clinic and as a housekeeper at a local hospital. Her job in the rental office of a housing complex ended when she was arrested and charged with embezzlement. She pleaded guilty in 2001 and agreed to pay restitution and serve 100 hours of community service. She never fulfilled the terms of her probation, state corrections officials said.
Williams' movements are harder to pin down, but the two women, with nine children between them, apparently lived together over a period of a couple of years.
For about a year, they lived in a two-story house in a working-class neighborhood in Irvington. Murphy's children attended school, according to relatives of the women, but Williams' children languished while their mother was away for long absences.
"Melinda never beat her kids," said Jones, the family friend. "She maybe didn't keep them clean. She neglected them, but she never abused them."
Another cousin, Malika Williams, said "Melinda wasn't a devil, she just needed help."
Some saw signs of domestic chaos at the house.
"That was a hell house," said a neighbor, Sabir Abdullah, "especially when Melinda drank." Abdullah said he often heard loud arguments, and another neighbor, Ed Aymat, a pastor at a neighborhood Baptist church, said he witnessed one shouting match between Murphy and another woman in which Murphy brandished a knife.
Caught up in the chaos Authorities say that life in the house, on Feiner Place in Irvington, was not just chaotic, but also criminal.
In March 2001, Williams was arrested on five-year-old child endangerment charges and sent to jail for about four months. About that time, according to authorities, a friend of Murphy, Joseph Reese, sexually abused one Williams brother. He was charged Wednesday with sexual assault.
No one claims to have taken responsibility for the boys in recent months, and the police are trying to decide who dealt them their final round of abuse.
Murphy's two teenage daughters, Princess and Precious, said Williams returned to Feiner Place after her release from jail and took her boys. But Williams, who is in a hospital in the Bronx after being hit by a car last week, said she left her boys in Murphy's care. She told friends that Murphy had sent the boys to the South to live with relatives.
In an interview, Murphy's daughters were sketchy about where the boys have been recently. Murphy and her family moved from Irvington just over a month ago. Investigators said they think Faheem was killed while the family was still living in Irvington, perhaps as long ago as September, and that his body was taken with the family when they moved to Newark.
"We were so happy when they moved out," said Aymat, their neighbor. "We used the expression 'someone threw out the garbage' when the family moved out."
It was only by chance that a boyfriend of Murphy stumbled upon the abuse in the basement at 188 Parker St. in Newark. But the shock of that discovery was magnified by the realization that the government radar meant to detect children in distress had been out of order.
Williams' children were among 1,500 youths being monitored by 49 caseworkers in a Newark office of the state Division of Youth and Family Services.
Beginning in 1992, the division received 11 complaints charging Williams with abuse and neglect ranging from an unkempt house to burns and beatings, and caseworkers confirmed three of the reports.
But there were oversights. State officials who reviewed the record in the last week found that a caseworker had duly noted in the file an allegation that one child was being sexually abused in late 2001, but that that allegation was never fully investigated.
While caseworkers knew that the boys were being shuffled among relatives and friends, "they did not do background checks on all of them," one state official said.
A preliminary state report on the Williams case released Friday noted that child protection officials could have tried to take the children from Williams. "There appears to be grounds to remove the children or at least seek court intervention for their protection and care, but the division did not follow up," the report says.
In February 2002, child protection workers closed the family's case file, even though a 4-month-old allegation that the children were being burned and beaten by their mother had not been fully investigated because the caseworker could not locate the children. In fact, the children had not been seen by a caseworker in more than a year.
The union representing youth service workers, while acknowledging that the case was mishandled, said caseworkers were overburdened and under pressure to close cases.
But McGreevey said Friday, "The failure of government in this instance to safeguard the health and welfare of these children is beyond excuse, it is sickening."
Beginning of a breakdown The child protection division was just the beginning of the breakdown.
The preliminary state report named nearly a dozen agencies, including police departments in three cities and state social workers, that had interacted with the family over the past decade. But there was little communication among agencies.
Since 1996, county prosecutors had a warrant out for Williams' arrest on charges of child endangerment. The accusation, according to investigators, was that she burned a child with a cigarette. But the accusation involved a child for whom Williams was baby-sitting and not her own, and the child protection workers monitoring Williams' own children apparently were not told of the allegation.
As a result, caseworkers visited Williams and her children repeatedly, unaware that she was wanted for child endangerment. There is no indication that the caseworkers were informed even after Williams was arrested, pleaded guilty and was sent to jail.
"We don't have anything in our file that she was charged for child endangerment," a state human services official said.
The communications failures extended to the school systems in Newark and Irvington. Neither district had a record of the twins, Raheem and Faheem, ever having attended school.
Even though the children were on the rolls of several other public agencies, school officials never looked for them. Officials with both districts said that it was the responsibility of parents to enroll their children in school.
"Of course, when we first heard about this, the first thing we said was, 'Did we drop the ball?' " said Anzella K. Nelms, the deputy superintendent of Newark public schools. "We didn't, but this still makes you sick."
On Friday night, one aide to McGreevey, who had spent the week unraveling the case, was exasperated by the interagency dysfunction. "There just aren't requirements that we talk to each other," he said.
Now they are talking to each other, and officials are trying to make it up to Williams' children. The boys, wanting for tenderness, are taking all that comes their way - however late it may be.
When James visited them early last week in the hospital, he brought a car and a computer game for the surviving twin, Raheem. "He jumped up and started screaming and doing a dance and said 'For me! For me! For me!' " the mayor recounted.
"Then,' the mayor said, "in the clearest voice, the brutalized boy turns to me and says, 'Thank you.' "

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