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Death Be Not Proud

The murder of Elisa Izquierdo spurred a barrage of stories, and improvements at the agency charged with protecting kids -- until the press grew weary of all that misery.

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Rickiana Campbell's mother sits in jail, accused of beating her daughter to death with a doll because she would not stop crying. This happened in Brooklyn, in September. Rickiana was 2 years old, and if her name and story are not nearly as familiar as those of, say, Elisa Izquierdo, whose mother murdered her four years ago, it should not be surprising. The Times, the Post, and Newsday all gave Rickiana's story a day. The Daily News followed with a few brief pieces. And that was the end of it.

This seemed odd. Here was a story so much like Elisa's: the horrific murder of a child by her parent, reports that the city's Administration for Children's Services had taken the child and her siblings from their mother only to return them, and a caseworker who somehow did not notice the telltale hints of Rickiana's palpably savage abuse (among other things, neighbors reported that on summer days she wore concealing long sleeves).

Yet the death of Rickiana Campbell attracted little attention because the stories of children murdered by their parents, or friends of their parents, or foster parents, seldom do. Consider Lillian Mezon, Lisa Nugent, Queen Baker, Darnell Fauntleroy, and Gabriella Vasquez: All of them were killed the same year Elisa died. All, like Rickiana, evoked momentary sadness but little if any outrage. Given the many hundreds of stories, columns, and editorials that followed Elisa's death, one would have expected a more indignant response when children continued to die. That there was almost none says much about the way the press approaches the stories of the city's 37,000 neglected, abused, and abandoned children whom the state has felt compelled to take from their parents (to say nothing of the half-million children in similar circumstances across the country).

Child welfare is a tough story to sell. It is ugly and cluttered, and offers little in the way of tidy remedies for lives ruined not only by parents but often by the very agency mandated to help those children. There are the occasional thoughtful child-welfare pieces in the Times and the News. But the stories of these children are too often buried in the paper, if they appear at all. Until, that is, a child's murder somehow captures the imagination of the press, whose stories, in turn, provoke public and political anger.

So why did the story of Rickiana Campbell's short life and horrible death vanish? Call it "Elisa fatigue." The story was old. It sounded too much like a story that had already been told, one that had, in most people's minds, changed things. The enduring child-welfare story is that of Elisa Izquierdo, the martyred child in whose name other children might be saved.

In truth, there was reason for reporters and editors to look back at their coverage of Elisa's death with some satisfaction. It had pushed the mayor -- who in the preceding months had gutted the city's budget for child welfare -- to begin displaying a great if sudden interest in the fate of children failed by their parents. It led to his appointing the well- regarded Nicholas Scoppetta to head the city's child-welfare agency. It prompted the Legislature to lift the veil of confidentiality that the agency had for years used to rebuff any questions or scrutiny of its workings. Family Court, whose proceedings were historically closed, opened its doors. Scoppetta announced plans for reform, the centerpiece of which was the placement of children in foster care in their own neighborhoods and opening offices in those neighborhoods where the needs were greatest.

"By the time of Rickiana's death, child welfare was no longer a hot story, no longer part of the public conversation. . . . We seem willing to accept a great deal about the agency that is supposed to make life better."

But another child died, and then another. And while the predictable voices of the children's advocates fairly screamed that the system remained an abomination, the words did not resonate. Besides, there was still Elisa's story, now the benchmark for both outrage and action. So powerful was that story that on September 1, two weeks before Rickiana Campbell's murder, Dateline NBC aired a follow-up on her legacy.

Meanwhile, the few reporters who made their way to the newly opened Family Court discovered stories of an altogether different sort, heartbreaking and impossibly complex ones of spoiled lives and hapless parents and children who ran the very great risk of growing up to be just like the parents who had so miserably failed them. The work was not done, not by a long shot, but the story was a loser, offering no neat resolution -- no end, in fact, at all. The story lost its appeal, so much so that when an event, a genuine peg, came along -- a Rickiana -- it was ignored.

Consider the declining number of stories about four murdered children over the past four years: The Nexis database of news reports finds Elisa Izquierdo's name in 1,104 stories, 339 of which ran in the five weeks after her death. Nadine Lockwood, who was found starved to death by her mother a year later, appeared in 210 stories. In 1997, two years after Elisa's death, Sabrina Green, who was brutalized and murdered by her adult sister and her sister's boyfriend, appeared 70 times. Rickiana Campbell's name appears in seven stories. By the time of her death, child welfare was no longer a hot story, no longer part of the public conversation. Interest had waned; outrage, dissipated.


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