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Little Girl Had Many Chances, and Died Anyway

November 29, 1995

NEW YORK (AP) _ In a city where so many poor children are born and buried with never a chance, Elisa had not one, but many.

Her loving father protected her and, as he was dying, devised a plan to keep her from her crack-smoking, abusive mother.

A Greek prince befriended her and offered a scholarship.

The staff of her Montessori preschool doted on her and stayed alert after early signs of abuse by her mother.

The Family Court judge handling her case had a shown a willingness to deny custody to a biological parent if it was in the child’s interest.

But this was a Cinderella even a prince could not save.

The father died the day he was to have sent her to safety. The judge overruled the objections of teachers and relatives and gave Elisa to her mother.

The mother pulled her out of school, tortured her in attempted exorcisms, and finally, police say, killed her by smashing her head against a concrete wall.

On Wednesday, they buried 6-year-old Elisa Izquierdo, one more fatally abused child. Year after year, they die at a rate of more than one a week in New York City. This year, Elisa was No. 58.

Elisa’s story is remarkable not because of her suffering, but because so many knew so much yet did so little. And because she had her chances.

Elisa was born poor, with her mother’s cocaine in her veins. Her parents were Awilda Lopez, whom crack addiction had rendered homeless, and Gustavo Izquierdo, a worker at a homeless shelter. They met at Izquierdo’s shelter.

The city gave Elisa to her father. With help from co-workers and relatives, he mastered diapering and feeding and later enrolled Elisa in a Montessori school in Brooklyn.

She was a lovely child, expressive and clever, with a sweet smile, twinkling eyes and long dark hair. Prince Michael of Greece had asked the school to pair him with a child during a visit. When he arrived, Elisa leaped into his arms and stayed at his side for the rest of the day.

``Love at first sight,″ said one staffer. A fairy tale come true.

The prince paid Elisa’s tuition, sent holiday gifts and offered a scholarship to attend private school through grade 12. She would respond with a simple note _ ``Thank You!″ _ or a drawing.

Meanwhile, her mother had gotten off crack and settled down with a new husband, his children and the two kids she had before Elisa was born.

At her mother’s behest, Elisa began to stay with her some weekends. During one visit, Lopez was stabbed 17 times by her husband, who was subsequently jailed.

The girl began to seem scared, withdrawn. A teacher noticed a suspicious bruise.

Then her father got cancer. Friends say he planned to obtain sole custody and send Elisa to live with relatives in Cuba to keep her away from her mother. But he died on May 26, 1994 _ the day the girl was to leave, according to her godmother.

Lopez stepped forward to claim her daughter.

She was supported by social workers, who found the Lopez home neat and orderly and the other children adequately cared for. Elisa’s court-appointed lawyer said the girl _ all of 5 _ wanted to be with her mother.

The judge was Phoebe Greenbaum, who in 1979 had denied a father custody of his 10-year-old, ruling that the boy’s grandparents had become his ``psychological parents.″

Lopez was opposed by the Montessori staff, by some of Elisa’s relatives, by the prince. But the judge gave the child to her mother, telling social workers to keep tabs.

Lopez rejected the prince’s scholarship offer and placed Elisa in a public school, even though she had been admitted to the prestigious Brooklyn Friends School.

School staffers noticed the child was despondent and seemed to walk strangely. Again, there were bruises. The school reported suspicions of child abuse; Lopez withdrew her. And somehow, somewhere, social workers lost sight of the peril.

The child had been defecating in her bed, and relatives say Lopez believed she was possessed by the devil, possibly because of a spell cast by the girl’s father.

By her own admission, authorities say, Lopez mopped the floor with her daughter’s head, forced the girl to eat her own excrement, violated her with a hairbrush.

Lopez has been jailed without bail on murder charges.

Neighbors in the high-rise housing project had heard the shouts and cries. ``We thought it was their way of disciplining the kids,″ explained one, Tony Ng. ``That’s not unusual, in this building at least.″

On the Monday before Thanksgiving, Awilda smacked Elisa into the wall, bursting blood vessels in the child’s brain. A city supposedly beyond outrage rose to the occasion.

Dozens of strangers came to her wake and funeral. Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey, known for her sober analysis of health care policy, said she favored executing the mother even if she were found insane. A caller to the rock ‘n’ roll radio station WXRK-FM requested a Pat Benatar lament over child abuse, ``Hell Is for Children.″

The Daily News said in a front-page editorial: ``Elisa Izquierdo is finally at peace. May her mother never find a moment of it again. ... She will get doctors, medication, lawyers _ innocent until proven guilty. Damn her.″

Elisa was given a wake in an open casket, with a red rose in her hand and a crown of white flowers. Long sleeves covered the bruises on her arms, but makeup could not hide those on her face.

Elisa’s mother ``didn’t give the little girl a chance,″ said Lopez’s niece, Miriam Saeed. ``She didn’t know what the little girl wanted.″

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