Wednesday, May 19, 2004

The New York Times > National > Youth Who Won Abuse Suit Is Held in Daughter's Killing

The New York Times > National > Youth Who Won Abuse Suit Is Held in Daughter's Killing

Youth Who Won Abuse Suit Is Held in Daughter's Killing

Published: May 19, 2004

IAMI, May 18 - At 16, Yusimil Herrera won a suit against Florida's child welfare agency for churning her through foster homes where she said she was beaten, slapped, kicked and sexually abused from the time she was 2. At 19, Ms. Herrera, a plucky young woman with dark, thick curls, had not seen any of the $2.2 million jury award and had drifted in and out of homelessness.

On Sunday, Ms. Herrera, now 20, was arrested on charges of severely beating her own young daughter in their North Miami apartment. Eight months pregnant with her second baby, she stands accused of the same cruelty that plagued her own childhood and made her a compelling symbol of the system's deepest failings.

The police found Ms. Herrera's daughter, Angel Hope Herrera, 3, lying unresponsive in the hallway outside her mother's apartment Sunday afternoon, with black and blue marks on her stomach, chest, arms and legs, according to the police report. She was airlifted to Jackson Memorial Hospital, where she was pronounced dead Tuesday afternoon, a hospital spokeswoman said.

Ms. Herrera, now charged with first-degree murder, was being held without bail at the Miami-Dade Women's Detention Center.

Peter Coats, a spokesman for the Department of Children and Family Services, said only that the department was "deeply saddened" by the "very tragic situation," that it was cooperating with the police investigation, and that he could not provide details of the case. But a state official said the agency's child abuse hot line had received two recent calls about Ms. Herrera - one in February, alleging that she had stopped taking medication for her bipolar disorder and another in March, alleging that she was hitting Angel.

The official said that in late March the agency asked Judge Sarah Zabel of Circuit Court for permission to take Angel into protective custody. But the judge rejected the request. A spokeswoman for the Miami-Dade Circuit Court declined to comment on the case.

Karen Gievers, the lawyer who represented Ms. Herrera in her lawsuit against the state, said in an interview that Angel was "a beautiful, healthy, happy" child despite her mother's hardships. She said that Ms. Herrera had recently married though was not living with her husband, and that she had appeared to be doing well when they last spoke in March.

"Nobody knows what she's been through," Ms. Gievers said of Ms. Herrera, who was placed in foster care at age 2 after her mother abandoned her and her older sister in a park, according to the suit. "She was beaten, sexually molested, battered with psychiatric medications that did who knows what to her brain. She was never given a complete education, never given independent-living skills classes that would have given her a smooth transition into adulthood. The state never gave her a family."

Minose Georges, who lives in the apartment next to Ms. Herrera's, said Tuesday that Ms. Herrera was extremely moody, did not get along with her daughter and rarely let her go outside.

"I saw her Saturday, like around 2 or 3, and she had blood all over her mouth," Ms. Georges, 22, said of Angel. She said that the child was telling her mother, "Mommy, I'm going to be good."

Ms. Georges said that when she asked about the blood, Ms. Herrera told her the girl had been biting her own lips. "Then she told Angel to wash her mouth," Ms. Georges said. "That's when Angel told me, 'I miss you, Minose.' "

According to the suit that Ms. Herrera and her sister filed in 1995, they were separated for most of the years they were in foster care, and Ms. Herrera was shuffled through 14 foster homes and institutions. The suit, in which the sisters were identified as "Two Forgotten Children," charged that the state had not done nearly enough to get the girls into good permanent homes or to prevent them from suffering abuse in unfit foster homes. Both were intermittently suicidal, it said.

"Nobody cares," the suit quoted Ms. Herrera as saying at 6, after being separated from her sister.

Ms. Gievers said that while a jury awarded each girl $2.2 million in 1999, four years after the suit was filed, an appeals court panel here overturned the verdict. Ms. Herrera settled with the Department of Children and Family Services last year, getting $260,000, Ms. Gievers said. But she ended up collecting only $80,000 after repaying the state for medical care she had received.

At a news conference sponsored by a children's advocacy group last June, Ms. Herrera spoke out about the difficulties that teenagers leaving foster care face. She criticized a new state law meant to help former foster care children succeed as young adults, saying it did not go far enough. She described attending eight high schools and said she had no job skills or home, according to an article about the news conference in The Sun-Sentinel.

The law, which required children to leave foster care at 18, provided a $900 monthly stipend to those who stayed in school and maintained good grades.

Gov. Jeb Bush has taken steps to improve the child welfare system, especially since a 4-year-old named Rilya Wilson vanished from her foster home near Miami in 2001. In particular, he has tried to reduce child abuse investigation backlogs and speed adoption of foster children.

"But we are still a long way from where we need to be," said Gerard Glynn, executive director of Florida's Children First!, the group that held the news conference last June. "So when we don't succeed with other efforts, we need to make sure we provide older foster youth with support to make sure they transition successfully into responsible adulthood. That was clearly missing in this case."

Terry Aguayo contributed reporting from Miami for this article, and Yudi Pineiro from North Miami.


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