Even amid the constant churn of men and women in and out of the busy Bronx bodega, one customer stood out as she walked to the deli counter to place her order: a cheeseburger and a bagel with cream cheese and jelly.
She was just a little girl, 7 years old, and alone. The store’s janitor, Ernie Slade, remembered her vividly. “She was standing right there with her food-stamp card, waiting for her food,” he said, pointing to a nook near the entrance.
It appeared that, under her pink mask, she had a bruise under one eye. Mr. Slade realized that to get to the store, she must have crossed a busy four-lane intersection of East 138th Street by herself. He thought about the police precinct nearby, and considered walking her there. No. Better not to interfere in other people’s business.
Days later, the girl, Julissia Batties, would be found dead in her apartment around the corner from the bodega, beaten to death. Her short life, in its final months, played out like that walk to the bodega — in plain sight and in danger at the same time.
She grew up in a blur of city agencies, social workers, judges and case workers. Her file was literally as old as she was, created at birth because of concerns that her older siblings had been abused. Officials decided where she lived and with whom, checking that she was being fed, clothed and schooled. They received a call about her welfare in the last week of her life. It’s unclear whether the call, about the black eye, was investigated before her death, an outcome none of those guardians could foresee.
More than two weeks later, charges have not been filed in Julissia’s death. The medical examiner’s office concluded that she died of blunt trauma to the abdomen. Her 17-year-old half brother has said he hit her repeatedly for eating his snacks in the hours before she died, on Aug. 10, law enforcement officials said. But he has not been charged with a crime. Her mother told a neighbor Julissia had fallen and hit her head.
Several investigations are underway to determine whether something was missed, any warning signs overlooked. Neighbors said they had feared for Julissia’s safety, noticing that sometimes she was bruised or out by herself. Were those claims examined? At times, she could become visibly anxious, even angry, when the subject of being with her mother came up. Was that the manner of a precocious child, or was she afraid?
The questions call attention to a fragile system that has been restructured to reunite families. City agencies have long been criticized for being too quick to remove children from homes for the flimsiest of reasons. In recent years, family court judges and the city’s Administration for Children’s Services have sought to reunite foster children with their birth families when appropriate, and to streamline the steps involved in doing so.
That was the stated course for Julissia as early as 2016, when a judge ruled that when the agency felt it was appropriate, the girl should be sent to live with her mother in a trial discharge.
The agency will face questions about whether that was the correct strategy. “The death of 7-year-old Julissia is a terrible tragedy, and we mourn her loss,” a spokeswoman for A.C.S. said in a statement. “We are conducting an intensive review of this case to ensure that we are doing everything possible to keep children safe and families supported.”
The child welfare agency had little reason to keep Julissia and her mother, Navasia Jones, separated by last year: Her mother had completed therapy and parenting classes, she had regained custody of one of her other children, and a younger half brother of Julissia’s who had never been removed from her care lived with her as well.
Julissia’s mother seemed to be making substantial progress, convincing the authorities that there was little risk in her regaining custody of the girl, said Gladys Carrión, a former children’s services commissioner.
“They got it wrong,” she said, “because this child died, that’s the bottom line.”
Ms. Carrión said there was no one decision that could explain what went had happened: “There were lots of people involved and, obviously, there was a consensus at some point and everybody said, ‘OK, we think the mom is ready, she could have this child.’”
Julissia was born on April 26, 2014, to Ms. Jones and Julius Batties, but she was immediately removed from their custody by the child welfare agency, court records show. Her safety, the agency found, was being endangered by her parents’ failure to provide a “minimum degree of care.” A judge ordered that Mr. Batties be referred to domestic violence counseling.
It was not the first sign of trouble in Ms. Jones’s home. She had already lost custody of her five other children after they were found with signs of physical abuse, according to a later report.
When Julissia was 6 days old, she was placed in the care of her paternal grandmother, Yolanda Davis, at Ms. Davis’s apartment in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. Ms. Jones was allowed a first visit. She held her infant daughter and refused to give her back, prompting Ms. Davis to call the police, according to court records. Ms. Jones was not allowed to return.
Snapshots in the girl’s bedroom at Ms. Davis’s home mark the passing years, from when she lay in a bassinet wearing a pink onesie to a preschool graduation portrait with her in a red cap and gown.
“I took really good care of my granddaughter, I took very good care of her,” Ms. Davis said in an interview. “Whatever she wanted to do that made her day better, I did it.”
The two would walk together to the Julissia’s school, Public School 375. “We’d run and she’d say, ‘I’m going to beat you grandma! I’m going to beat you! Don’t cheat!’” Ms. Davis said. “And she’d start laughing.”
Julissia’s parents sought inroads into her life. Mr. Batties was allowed to visit her on weekends at certain points, on the condition that Ms. Jones, her mother, not be present. Ms. Jones worked to reclaim her rights to see and gain custody of Julissia and her children, court records indicate, completing required parenting classes and agreeing to anger management.
Nonetheless, judges ruled that she was “prone to unpredictable emotional outbursts.” Once, court records show, she arrived at a child welfare office and “was kicking down doors” looking for a case worker.
She had struggled through an unstable childhood of her own. She was raised by her grandmother, said Kathy Ferguson, a friend and former neighbor. By the time Ms. Jones was a teenager, she had run away, and wound up living in a duplex with a friend in Brooklyn. Soon, she was dating the friend’s uncle, who was 25 years older, Ms. Ferguson said.
“Someone’s giving you a home, a warm meal and a bed,” Ms. Ferguson said. “This is what girls do when they don’t have anything else.”
Ms. Jones and the older man had a son, the first of her six children — the one who, 17 years later, would tell the police he punched Julissia on the last day of her life. Things were volatile in the home, and the police were often there.
“She came from a messed up family, and raised her kids in the same type of environment that she grew up in,” Ms. Ferguson said, adding that she had once accompanied Ms. Jones to therapy, only to see her pick a fight with the therapist.
Ms. Jones could be a doting mother, Ms. Ferguson said, and as long as her children were well behaved, she bought them whatever they wanted.
“She loves her kids, but that mind of hers flicks off and on,” Ms. Ferguson said. “I cannot imagine living in her household as a kid.”
Over the years, Ms. Jones was referred for mental health services, court records indicate. She attended parenting classes — some more than once — court hearings and meetings at the foster agency handling Julissia’s case, said Natasha Ferguson, Kathy’s daughter.
“It was frustrating for her,” Natasha Ferguson, 32, said. “Some things she didn’t want to do. What she had to do, she did it.”
For Julissia, her mother’s appearances in her life and her parents’ hostile relationship were extremely disruptive, reaching a peak in 2017.
That year, when she was 3, she was removed from her grandmother’s care by the child welfare agency and placed in foster care because of the “continuation of domestic violence issues” between her parents. The agency said that her father had violated his visitation rights by coming to see her without supervision at Ms. Davis’s home, and that he had threatened to harm Ms. Jones and unnamed “children” during a dispute with her.
In a handwritten plea to the agency, Ms. Davis, who was accused only of letting her son visit his daughter at her home, asked that the girl be returned to her care. Later that year, a judge ordered Julissia returned, saying that the child welfare agency had overstepped and that removing the girl from her grandmother’s home “was not correct.”
By then, Ms. Jones was being allowed to visit her children. Family court documents a year earlier stated that she “expresses that she wants her children returned to her care.” The feeling does not appear to have been mutual. When she was 5, Julissia began treatment at a mental health clinic in Crown Heights. Notes from her sessions there offer a window into her relationship with her mother.
“As she colored, she screamed ‘no stop’ and appeared distraught and anxious,” a social worker wrote in 2019, adding that she becomes “anxious when mom is mentioned in session. She displays anger toward Grandma when Grandma mentions a visit with mom.”
In January 2020, Julissia and Ms. Jones were scheduled for a visit at the clinic. The girl was visibly nervous and rigid as she waited for her mother, a supervisor wrote, but when it became clear Ms. Jones would not be coming, Julissia instantly relaxed and began to talk more.
“There is quite a bit of trauma” that Julissia experiences “each time contact is made with her biological mother,” the supervisor wrote.
Given that background, it might appear surprising that Julissia was sent to live with her mother some months later.
But rather than a hasty change in plans, court records suggest, the outcome was long in the making, the charted course for a system that prefers, when deemed safe, that children live with their parents. For Julissia, what began as a trial discharge to Ms. Jones’s home last year became final this year.
Around April 2020, with the city in the grip of the pandemic, Julissia began settling into her mother’s apartment on the 10th floor of a building in the Mitchel Houses complex in the Bronx. Neighbors described her as a shy, quiet girl who loved Minnie Mouse and unicorns.
That seemed to change over the summer, with neighbors describing signs of trouble. Julissia came and went on her own, riding alone in the elevator and taking solo trips to the bodega. Several neighbors said they heard Ms. Jones shouting almost constantly from behind her apartment door.
“I’d hear her yelling at the kids all the time,” said Michael Roberts, a neighbor who said he called both the police and child welfare official about the family. “She would curse at them; she was frustrated for no reason, always angry. It made no sense to walk out of your house and be that angry.”
Another neighbor, Mina Cruz, said she called the child welfare agency on July 8 and July 12 to report seeing Julissia waiting for an elevator alone and walking the street on errands by herself.
The state Office of Children and Family Services, which fields child-abuse calls and passes them on to local authorities, is not legally allowed to confirm or discuss the confidential complaints it receives. In a statement, however, it said it was “actively and carefully reviewing all information and actions taken by the New York City Administration for Children’s Services in response to this tragic case.”
It is unclear whether the authorities followed up on the neighbors’ calls. Generally, a case worker is supposed to contact a child’s family within 24 hours of getting a complaint that is deemed credible; neighbors would not necessarily be told of such a visit.
Ms. Davis, Julissia’s grandmother, filed for visitation rights last year. A hearing was scheduled for this fall. But on July 31, she received a series of text messages from Julissia’s phone that alarmed her and made her question who was sending them.
“Grandma it’s me Julissia,” the texts began. “I’m leaving today,” she continued. “My mom letting me live with her brother.”
Ms. Davis asked: Where?
“Texas,” came the reply. “She said I’m not coming back.”
A child’s fantasy, an adult’s hoax or something else? The answer is unclear, and the trip never happened.
A week later on Aug. 6, Mr. Roberts’s girlfriend, Jasmine Jones, told him she had seen the girl with a swollen black eye.
Ms. Jones said she had asked Julissia who hit her. “She said her mother did it to her,” she said.
She said she called the child welfare agency to report what she had seen. Two days later, Mr. Roberts saw Julissia in the elevator with her mother. The girl was wearing sunglasses.
On Aug. 10, a Tuesday, neighbors said they awoke to the sound of Julissia’s mother screaming — not in anger, but in fear.
“She knocked on the door,” said Janine Raveneau, 51, who lives down the hall. “She was yelling, ‘Help! Help! My daughter stopped breathing!’”
“I ran into the apartment,” Ms. Raveneau added. “The little girl was laying down in her room, halfway. Her older brother was holding her up.”
Julissia was naked and limp in her older brother’s arms. Ms. Jones told Ms. Raveneau it was because she had urinated on her clothes, Ms. Raveneau recalled. The mother continued: “‘She woke me up screaming my name. I went to her and asked if she was all right, and she said her stomach hurt.’”
The girl had fallen and hit her heard on a table, Ms. Raveneau recalled Ms. Jones saying.
Ms. Jones called 911 and handed the phone to Ms. Raveneau.
“Can you put your hand on her stomach?” the dispatcher asked.
Ms. Raveneau did.
“He said, ‘Did your hand move?’” she said. “I said, ‘No.’”
News of Julissia’s death swept through the hall, where neighbors made a memorial of stuffed animals and candles, and out of the building to the bodega. There, Mr. Slade, the janitor, remembered her solitary visits, her order for the cheeseburger and the bagel with cream cheese and jelly, and his fleeting urge to take her to the police.
“I started crying,” Mr. Slade said. “That was my fault. I should have took her.”
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