Many failures in Gizzell Ford death, few fixes yet – Chicago Tribune
The discovery of 8-year-old Gizzell Ford’s tortured body in a trash-strewn Chicago apartment set off a firestorm of shock, disgust and demands for change.
Months after a judge ruled against the child’s mother and placed Gizzell in her grandmother’s home with her bedridden father, the straight-A student suffered horrific abuse while tied to a bedpost for days at a time, was denied food and water, and punished for trying to take a sip from the toilet.
Gizzell, though, did not simply fall through the cracks — a Chicago Tribune investigation following her slaying in 2013 found that multiple layers of trained professionals duty-bound to protect children had contact with the emaciated girl in the final months of her life but failed to act on warning signs.
Now, as the child’s grandmother, Helen Ford, awaits sentencing following her recent conviction for first-degree murder, promises of systemic reforms in Gizzell’s memory have fallen woefully short despite some incremental improvements in training and collaboration among child welfare agencies.
At the grandmother’s trial, prosecutors revealed for the first time excerpts from the rainbow-striped journal Gizzell kept over the summer of 2013 as she endured weeks of abuse. The tone, once hopeful, turned dark near the end.
Gizzell, looking forward to fourth grade, wrote that she was “a beautiful smart and good young lady” who would try her best not to get into trouble and face further punishment.
“I hate this life because now I’m in super big trouble,” she wrote just one day before her death, as her resiliency finally crumbled amid the onslaught of verbal, emotional and physical abuse.
Attorneys on both sides of the case agreed on this much — that a Cook County domestic relations judge should never have placed Gizzell with her father and paternal grandmother, both unemployed, with a felony conviction in each of their backgrounds. Prosecutors called the judge’s ruling “a disgrace,” while Ford’s assistant public defenders said the 55-year-old woman was overwhelmed while also caring for her quadriplegic adult son and two young grandsons.
But the judge was far from the only one who missed red flags, interviews and records obtained by the Tribune show.
Barely a month before Gizzell’s death on July 12, 2013, an investigator for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services visited the grandmother’s cockroach-infested apartment on the city’s West Side as she checked out the Fords’ allegations that the child had been molested by her mother’s boyfriend before she came to live with them. Prosecutors said bruises and wounds over her entire body pointed to her being brutalized for weeks, but the DCFS worker reported nothing out of the ordinary beyond a cluttered home, records show.
In addition, a respected child-abuse pediatrician who examined Gizzell for the possible sexual trauma weeks before she died didn’t call the DCFS hotline about an “old, healing loop” he noted on the girl that might have been a telltale sign of abuse. The doctor also may not have followed standard protocol in cases of suspected child abuse by failing to question Gizzell privately about the mark outside her grandmother’s presence, according to the DCFS Office of the Inspector General. Unable to find evidence of sexual trauma, he characterized the exam as “normal” but noted the injury and two other marks on Gizzell.
The DCFS investigator had access to the physician’s report, but she failed to act as well.
Later, her failures in Gizzell’s care led to her firing, but no action was ever taken against the pediatrician. He is being sued, however, by Gizzell’s mother.
Equally confounding, Gizzell’s medical exam was conducted at a Children’s Advocacy Center meant to provide an interdisciplinary and integrated approach to child abuse allegations, yet repeated opportunities for collaboration among its staff, the pediatrician and DCFS were missed.
News of Gizzell’s suffering outraged state and local officials, sparking multiple investigations and calls for action that for the most part have produced little substantive reform.
For instance, domestic relations judges hearing child custody disputes between impoverished parents who can’t afford attorneys still are forced to make life-or-death decisions with few resources to guide them. And DCFS and other agencies involved in child welfare still often operate in isolation, creating communication barriers, experts say.
DCFS Director George Sheldon, hired about 1 1/2 years after Gizzell’s death, said his agency “should have seen more of the warning signs and looked deeper, with a greater sense of urgency about the risks to this child.”
“Regrettably, and I’ve seen this too many times, everyone failed — the agency, the doctor, the courts,” he said.
Sheldon said DCFS is making progress since Gizzell’s death, citing innovations in technology to better spot red flags, improved training and pilot projects across the state designed to localize decision-making and shorten how long kids in protective custody spend in temporary placements.
“But (progress) is slower and has taken more time than anyone would hope,” he said.
An ‘agonizing death’
Even veteran Chicago police officers were stunned at the condition of the two-bedroom apartment in the 5200 block of West Adams Street.
They documented the squalor in their reports: Cockroaches scurried across the floors and walls. The rooms were so cluttered with clothes and garbage that police said they had to clear a path just to walk, and the carpet was so wet and filthy that it felt “mushy” with each step. The smell of urine permeated the air.
“I would not leave a rat in that home,” one DCFS document reviewed by the Tribune quoted Chicago police Sgt. Bryan Holy as saying.
Not even decades of experience prepared emergency responders for what they discovered in one of the bedrooms. Gizzell’s strangled and badly beaten body, clad only in torn green underwear, was found on the floor of her father’s room. Her journal lay nearby. Its last entry was dated one day earlier, July 11, but authorities said much of the girl’s once-neat writing was barely legible.
Authorities said the 70-pound child had been beaten literally from head to toe by a 275-pound grandmother who sometimes wore a belt around her neck that she used for punishment. The girl’s father, Andre Ford, bedridden with chronic scleroderma, also was charged in the slaying, but he died before trial in Cook County Jail of an apparent heart attack at age 29.
An open, maggot-infested wound found on the back of Gizzell’s head is believed to have been caused by her rubbing against a metal post when she was tied to her father’s bed. Her wrists and ankles had visible ligature marks. Authorities said Gizzell was kept there as a virtual prisoner after school ended in mid-June.