Sunday, October 25, 2009

PA: Girl's Death Prompts Investigation into School

Officials suspected abuse in girl's case

A school nurse thought something was wrong in May and September. The girl, 10, died Wednesday.

A school nurse who suspected in May something was physically wrong with 10-year-old Charleeni Ferreira asked her parents for her medical records and told them to take the girl to a doctor, a law enforcement official said yesterday.

The involvement of the nurse indicates that officials suspected months ago something was wrong with Charleeni, a Philadelphia fifth grader who died Wednesday after suffering what authorities described as horrific and systematic abuse. Her parents have been charged with murder and the investigation continues.

It is unclear what happened after the nurse at Feltonville Intermediate School raised the alarm. In September, when Charleeni returned to school, the nurse again demanded the family seek medical help for the child, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

School records indicate the family complied and took the girl to a doctor.

But there is no indication that the doctor found anything suspect, according to the law enforcement official who reviewed the school record.

Charleeni died from an infection caused by untreated broken ribs that collapsed her lungs. The medical examiner said she had numerous healed and fresh injuries, including broken bones and a severe head gash that was months old and that had been stuffed with gauze and concealed with a hair weave.

Schools are mandatory reporters of child abuse and would have been obligated under the law to contact DHS if they had received information indicating there was abuse.

How much officials knew about Charleeni's condition in the months leading up to her death is critical because of previous reports of abuse.

In October 2006, a nurse at Clara Barton Elementary School called DHS to say she suspected the girl was being abused.

DHS spent five months providing services to Charleeni's family but after two medical examinations failed to confirm the abuse allegations the case was closed in March 2007.

Fernando Gallard, a spokesman for the district, said yesterday he could not comment on specifics in the case.

"The district is doing its utmost to cooperate in the ongoing investigation of the death of our student," Gallard said in a statement. "The district is unable to comment any further on this case due to the ongoing investigation and the privacy rights of the student and her family."

It is district practice to note a student's involvement in an active DHS case in his or her permanent education record, Gallard said. Even if the DHS investigation is closed, the notation remains.

Charleeni's father, Domingo Ferreira, 53, and stepmother, Margarita Garabito, 43, were charged Thursday with murder and endangering the welfare of a child. Authorities said Charleeni suffered "ongoing torture."

Officials said Charleeni also had injuries that showed she had been sexually abused but no charges have been filed involving sex crimes. Police were awaiting DNA test results, which could take several days.

DHS Commissioner Anne Marie Ambrose met with a school official yesterday to discuss how the department and the school district could work more closely to ensure children who suffer abuse have a safe way to report allegations.

"We were concerned about news reports we heard that kids knew about the abuse and were told not to tell," Ambrose said. "We want to let children know there are safe places for them to go to tell about abuse."

Outside the Ferreira family home yesterday, neighbors filled the porch with flowers, photos, candles, and balloons.

Neighbor Maritza Fabian said yesterday that she and others had asked about Charleeni's injuries but that Garabito always had an answer ready.

"When I first met her, she used to walk fine, a normal child," said Fabian, whose children attended school with Charleeni and who lives near the family's rented home on C Street. "In a year and a half, we noticed that she was walking like handicapped. We asked the mom, and she said she had a sickness and no one could figure it out."

They said they never expected to see any of the family - including Charleeni's two stepbrothers, ages 16 and 19, whom authorities said did not show signs of abuse - in the neighborhood again.

"If they did ever come near here, there's going to be a riot," said Lillian Fabian of Juniata, who stopped by the memorial yesterday. She is not related to Maritza Fabian.

A cold, light rain fell last night on a few dozen attendees at a vigil for Charleeni outside her home.

An older man identified as a relative of the dead girl showed up to check on the house and endured curse-filled screams in Spanish from two women next door who were furious that he had dared to show his face. The man left and police arrived later to make sure emotions didn't run out of control.

Other neighbors remembered Charleeni moving in with the family a few years ago and appearing vibrant, but then eventually suffering a noticeable decline that her family had attributed to a disease. She began to wear a wig and makeup on her increasingly swollen face. She complained that her ribs hurt when she played.

"She would shiver walking up the steps" to her house, as if in pain, neighbor Shanel Jones, 24, said. The girl's stepmother "would scream at her to hurry up and get in," Jones said.

Emanie Feliciano, 9, who visits Jones' home daily and played with Charleeni, remembered the girl saying recently, "I'm going to have a birthday. Well, maybe not."

"What 10-year-old is going to say that?" asked Emanie's mother, Leslie Santiago, 28.

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