This story is not just about the murder of a little girl by her custodial father, DOMINGO FERREIRA, though it's certainly about that too. It's also about a destitute, illiterate (but loving) mother in Puerto Rico (originally from the Dominican Republic) who hoped that her daughter would have a better life with her father in the United States. A chance for an education and the American Dream and all that.
But we now know that the girl was viciously abused by her father and his live-in girlfriend (reports started just MONTHS after the little girl arrived) and continued over three years till she died at age 10--one of the worst cases of child abuse ever seen by the Philadelphia police. Some new things I have observed here, which are very typical of child abusers:
1) Dad cut off telephone contact between the daughter and her mother
2) Dad was masterful at coaching and intimidating the daughter into blaming the mother (who lived out of the country!) for signs of abuse, and saying nothing about what was going on at home. He was also an expert at concocting excuses about mysterious "illnesses" to explain away the bruises and other injuries for neighbors, relatives, and other experts who (with a few notable exceptions) did nothing to intervene.
Now the mother herself is dying from untreated cancer--no one could afford to pay for the necessary surgery.
This is not a "tragedy"--it's an outrage that impoverished and exploited mothers from poor countries--with no education, no health care, no way out of poverty--have so very few choices when it comes to saving themselves or their children. It's essentially the story of how an abusive father can exploit colonial oppression to further his own agenda.
Posted on Sun, Nov. 8, 2009
Charlenni's tragic journey
By James Osborne, Troy Graham, and Mark Fazlollah
Inquirer Staff Writers
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - Seven-year-old Charlenni Ferreira was like many of the children in Buen Consejo, a worn hillside barrio of boxy concrete homes by the city's edge.
Money was tight for her mother - a maid raising a son and daughter alone - but the family, while poor, was not destitute. The three shared a two-bedroom apartment, watched satellite TV, and had plenty of food on the table.
Support came, in part, from Charlenni's father. Domingo Ferreira had moved from San Juan to Philadelphia and was sending them a portion of his earnings as a limousine driver.
Charlenni spoke lovingly of him, though he had left when she was a toddler.
She also talked wistfully of someday living in the United States. Most of the kids in Buen Consejo did.
"The dream of going to America is so strong," said Neyda Fuster, the social worker at Charlenni's elementary school. "They all want to go."
Charlenni got her wish after visiting her father in the summer of 2006. He called her mother, Rosalinda Almeida Dominguez, and asked to keep his daughter, then 7, in Philadelphia.
"She loved her father so much," Rosalinda recalled last week. "So I let her go."
The dream would be the death of Charlenni.
Within a few months, a nurse at her new school in the Feltonville section made the first of two complaints to the city's Department of Human Services that the child bore the marks of abuse.
In three years, at age 10, Charlenni was dead in what Philadelphia police called one of the worst cases of child abuse they had seen.
On Oct. 23, Domingo and his live-in girlfriend, Margarita Garabito, were charged with murder. Two days later, he hanged himself in his jail cell.
He once told caseworkers that he had taken in his child because her mother could not care for her. Charlenni herself, in explaining signs of abuse to a doctor in 2007, cast blame on her mother.
In numerous interviews last week in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, however, relatives, friends, and teachers said Charlenni had been happy on the island, and safe.
"She was a normal kid. She was always out playing," said Brenda Ires Rivera, who lived down the street in Buen Consejo.
"The only problem was in that house in Philadelphia. . . . When she left, we never thought anything like this would happen."
Charlenni Ferreira was buried last Sunday, two days after her 11th birthday, in her mother's hometown of Las Galeras, a seaside village in the Dominican Republic.
In the cemetery at the threshold to the jungle, cracked pieces of stone littered the ground. The names of the deceased, painted by hand, were faded from years in the Caribbean sun.
Early last week, fresh cement and a single bouquet marked Charlenni's resting place. But her name had yet to be added to the family tomb.
In life, the child had never set foot in Las Galeras. Nor had she met the relatives who for generations have farmed yucca and plantains in the mountains of the Samana Peninsula on the north coast.
Her mother, like many young Dominicans before her, left the village in her early 20s, setting off in a small boat bound for Puerto Rico's western shore - a one-day trip across open ocean that, in bad weather, is perilous.
Undocumented, Rosalinda Dominguez found work as a maid for wealthy families outside San Juan. Within a year, she was pregnant with a son, Julio Angel, now 18. The father left the barrio, said Rivera, the neighbor.
A few years later, Rosalinda met Domingo, also a Dominican, who had found a job in San Juan laying floors. He had spent more than a year working in the United States, where his sister lived.
He had a teenage daughter, Glenny, and around 1996 they all began living together in Buen Consejo - translated, "Good Counsel" - a Dominican enclave where the crowing of fighting cocks echoes amid the brightly colored homes.
The family grew close to neighbors, who also worked across the city as maids, waiters, and laborers.
When Rosalinda "was pregnant with Charlenni, Domingo would go with her on her cleaning jobs," said Lucresia Brito, a neighborhood friend. "He would do everything."
Rosalinda's father, Antonio Almeida, who lives in San Juan, described Domingo as "a good man, a good father. The years they lived together were good." Whenever he visited, "everything was fine."
Charlenni, the couple's only child, was born in 1998.
Within a couple of years, Domingo returned to the United States, where he found work as a limo driver in Philadelphia. Married at 17, Glenny also moved to the United States, ultimately to Vineland, N.J.
Rosalinda was left alone to raise Charlenni and Julio Angel. Although Domingo sent money monthly, Rosalinda struggled at times to pay the bills, her father said.
"She would work two days some weeks, sometimes three. It was never steady," he said. "She was very poor, living in a room in a house filled with people."
The place was typical of Buen Consejo - a two-story house broken up into apartments - and so were the family's difficulties.
Charlenni had plenty of playmates. She attended a Head Start program at a nearby community center and first grade at Dr. Luis Pereira Leal Elementary down the street. Teachers called her popular and "sweet," but noted she lagged academically.
"Her mother didn't know how to read and write, so she didn't have a lot of help at home," said Fuster, the social worker.
Charlenni's half-brother, big and strong for his age, kept a close eye on her. "He protected the girl," said first-grade teacher Nehemias Garcia.
In class, he said, Charlenni often spoke of her father. "She had strong feelings about him. She was such a baby. She was really fragile."
A move to Philly
In Philadelphia, Domingo had met Garabito and was living with her and her three children in Feltonville. When Charlenni finished first grade in San Juan, she joined them.
"It was for better schools and a better life," said Rosalinda's brother, Elvin Almeida, who lives in Rhode Island.
Police have not said when they believe the abuse of Charlenni began, but a nurse at Clara Barton Elementary made the first of two complaints to DHS in October 2006, just months after the child arrived in Philadelphia.
DHS investigated, and Charlenni was seen numerous times by caseworkers, doctors, and counselors. None could prove abuse.
The agency closed the case in 2007. There were no further complaints regarding Charlenni.
Rosalinda rarely spoke to her daughter.
"Rosalinda would call, and [Garabito] would say, 'She's not here,' and hang up," said Fedelina Santos, a friend in San Juan. "She was a good mother, and it was tough on her. She wanted to visit, but she didn't have documents."
Relatives in the United States described Charlenni as increasingly sullen and withdrawn.
"It was as if someone was intervening," said Elvin Almeida. "The girl didn't talk with anyone."
Domingo's sister, Petra Nila "Tata" Ferreira, and her husband, Juan Paulino, also visited every couple of months. They now live in Wilmington.
Charlenni barely spoke to them, said her aunt, who said she did not suspect abuse. She once noticed a red mark on the girl's arm, but, she said, Garabito explained it away as the result of a blood illness.
According to DHS records, Charlenni and Garabito both provided doctors with ready, if sometimes conflicting, reasons for her injuries. Tests did show Charlenni was anemic, bolstering the family's claim that she bruised easily.
"Her room was well-decorated, and she was always well-dressed," Tata said. "How are you going to think she is badly treated?"
A few years ago, Domingo took his girlfriend and Charlenni to Santo Domingo, capital of the Dominican Republic and his hometown. Relatives there questioned why Charlenni was so quiet.
Garabito insisted "the girl is mentally bad," Tata said. Charlenni was taken to a local clinic, she added, but nothing was found to be wrong.
Philadelphia police sources have said Garabito, 42, confessed to beating Charlenni; investigators believe she was the chief tormentor.
Domingo, 53, was charged with murder, they said, because he did nothing to stop the abuse.
Domingo, who visited the Dominican Republic for a month twice a year, returned from a trip this fall just three days before Charlenni died, of an infection caused by untreated broken ribs.
She also had a fractured hip and a seven-inch gash on her head, hidden under a wig, as well as sexual-assault injuries.
Tata said she thought her brother hadn't realized his daughter was being beaten.
"He didn't know what he was looking at," she said.
Garabito's attorney, however, could cast blame solely on Domingo.
At a Municipal Court hearing last month, Barbara A. McDermott said his suicide could be interpreted as "an admission of guilt."
In an interview, Domingo's daughter Glenny said he had never abused her - never even liked to raise his voice - and she believes he was innocent.
She suggested he might have been unaware of Charlenni's abuse because he worked long hours, getting behind the limo wheel at dawn, coming home late at night.
Glenny talked to him shortly after he and Garabito were arrested. She said he had told her, "I didn't know I lived with a monster."
Earlier this year, Rosalinda felt a pain in her abdomen and went to a doctor.
The diagnosis was cancer.
Living in Puerto Rico illegally, she did not qualify for assistance. Doctors said removing the tumor would cost $18,000, a sum she and her family could not afford.
A few weeks ago, she returned to Las Galeras to wait for the end.
She was so ill that her family did not tell her of Charlenni's death.
She learned of it a week later, when she called to wish her child a happy 11th birthday, said Rosalinda's uncle Carlos Almeida.
"These sorts of things happen all over the world, in this country, in this town," he said. "But when it's someone in your family, it's very sad for everyone."
Each day, Rosalinda's relatives help her to a foldout recliner, under a mango tree in her mother's garden.
As the mountain breeze blows through, they arrange themselves in plastic chairs, taking turns rubbing cream on her arms and fetching her cold drinks.
Sitting in the garden, Rosalinda said Charlenni had "sounded so happy" the last time they had spoken, nine months before her death. At the memory, she slumped over, mumbling.
Her 78-year-old mother, Luisa Dominguez, said the shock had taken a heavy toll.
Rosalinda, she said, hasn't accepted what happened.
"She believes it was all an accident."