And Gustavo did an outstanding job as a father and he doted on his daughter: “She was his life. He would always say she was his princess,” a family friend went on to recall.1 Initially, he was clueless on how to raise a child but with help from his co-workers and relatives, Gustavo mastered diapering and feeding. When the time came, Gustavo enrolled Elisa in the prestigious Montessori Day School in Brooklyn. “You couldn’t resist that smile. Elisa always clung to people, she had so much love,” recollected one of her teachers, Barbara Simmons.2 However, as things were finally on the upswing in Elisa’s life, an affidavit was signed which stated that Awilda had overcome her addiction and now had a permanent accommodation at the Farragut Houses in Brooklyn, with her new husband. On paper, it appeared as though Awilda finally had her life together and now she wanted her daughter back.
By 1991, Awilda was granted unsupervised visitation with Elisa. Awilda’s two eldest children soon informed relatives that during these visits, Awilda would brutally beat Elisa and claim that she was possessed by the devil. You would think that upon hearing this information, these relatives would take that information straight to authorities. They did not. Elisa began to seem scared and withdrawn and not her usual giddy self. Gustavo and a number of Elisa’s teachers noticed that she often arrived back home from these visits bearing bruising. On one occasion, Elisa had bruising around her genitalia. It was observed by Gustavo that Elisa had started to wet the bed and would often be sick once returning home from Awilda. Gustavo went straight to New York’s Child Welfare Administration to report these findings, as did one of Elisa’s teachers. Elisa herself even confessed to the abuse to a social worker.
Gustavo applied to have the visitation rights ceased. Tragically, the courts denied his application and the visitations were allowed to continue. By 1993, Gustavo had purchased plane tickets and had planned to move back to Cuba, taking Elisa with him. However, Gustavo and Elisa never made the flight – Gustavo was rushed to hospital with respiratory complications and died from lung cancer on the very day they were scheduled to leave for Cuba – 26 May, 1994. The death of Gustavo was the nail in the coffin of Elisa escaping her abusive mother and ultimately, her untimely death.
Upon Gustavo’s death, Awilda filed for full custody of Elisa and was supported by social workers and Elisa’s court-appointed lawyer who claimed that Elisa wanted to be with her mother. Awilda was subsequently granted temporary custody and upon hearing this alarming news, Elsa Canizares, Gustavo’s cousin, also filed for custody. The head teacher of Elisa’s school and even Prince Michael of Greece – who had met Elisa when he visited her school – wrote letters to the Judge, informing him of the torment Elisa had experienced at the hands of her own mother. Prince Michael even offered Elisa a scholarship to attend private school through to grade 12. They all argued that Elisa wouldn’t stand a chance if placed in custody of her mother. Regardless of the mounting evidence as to why Awilda was not a suitable mother, in 1994, she was granted full and permanent custody of Elisa by judge Phoebe Greenbaum, who in 1979, denied a father custody of his 10-year-old son, stating that the boy’s grandparents were his “psychological parents.”3 It was a decision that would prove to be fatal.
As soon as Elisa moved in with her mother, the abuse continued. Elisa was taken out of her prestigious school and sent to a public one. Here, she was reported as being withdrawn and uncommunicative. She was also reported to be riddled with bruises each week and appeared to have difficulty walking. Again, this clear evidence of abuse was reported but these reports were discarded due to apparently being “not reportable.” Upon finding out that the school had reported suspicions of child abuse, Awilda withdrew Elisa from the school. Now, Elisa had nowhere to escape her mother, her tormentor. She would be locked in her bedroom 24 hours seven days a week. Elisa wouldn’t even be allowed out to use the bathroom and would defecate the bed.
Awilda started to tell relatives that Elisa was possessed by the devil and that she had been put under a spell by her father. Awilda’s brother, Rafael Nahones, and her sister, Monsarrate Torres, said they believed the tall tales of Elsa’s demons and therefore never questioned their sister’s torment of Elisa. Neighbours would say they frequently heard Elisa screaming for help and begging her mother to stop hurting her. “We thought it was their way of disciplining the kids,” said neighbour, Tony Ng.
The apartment was a home of horrors to say the very least. Elisa would be forced to eat her own excrement, her head would be used as a mop, she would be beaten with various objects and burnt and she would be sexually assaulted with a hairbrush and toothbrush. Elisa was deprived of food while she watched her half-siblings chow down on dinner every night. Carlos Lopez, Awilda’s husband, would even encourage his own children to hit Elisa. On 15 November, 1994, Awilda called her sister and told her that Elisa was “like retarded on the bed,” and that she had some sort of fluid leaking from her nose and mouth. The fluid was brain fluid. Elisa was left on the bed until the following day when Awilda invited a neighbour inside to view the body. Upon viewing Elisa’s body the neighbour immediately called an ambulance but it was far too late. Elisa was dead at just 6-years-old.
Awilda would eventually confess that she had thrown Elisa head first into a concrete wall two days before the ambulance was called. She revealed that Elisa hadn’t spoken or moved since the incident. Medical examiners were horrified at the sight of little Elisa and couldn’t even begin to imagine the torture she had endured by somebody who was supposed to be her caregiver. Her lifeless body reflected years of abuse; she had numerous injuries which included broken fingers (one finger bone was even protruding through the skin), burns and cuts over her head, face, and body, and internal injuries. An autopsy also revealed that her genitalia and rectum bore signs of trauma, including tearing. It was shown that all of the injuries had been sustained over a period of time; it was evident that Elisa had been tortured from the moment she entered the apartment. The abuse surrounding this case is extremely abhorrent but even more abhorrent is the fact that it was easily preventable had child services responded accordingly.
Elisa was buried in a white coffin so small that there was only room for four pallbearers. At the front was Elsa Canizares, Gustavo’s cousin who had fought for custody of Elisa. Snow blanketed the ground on Cypress Hills Cemetery where Elisa was to be buried following the sombre funeral at Ponce Funeral Home in Bushwick, Brooklyn. As the dainty coffin was lowered into the ground, mourners threw in pink carnations. Elisa was buried in a white lace dress that draped over her thin and frail body. On her head, she wore a garland made of white flowers that couldn’t quite conceal the bruise near her temple; a grim reminder of the abuse she sustained before her death. During her funeral, the Rev. Gianni Agostinelli blamed “the silence of many and neglect of child welfare institutions,” for the death of Elisa.4 The Daily News wrote in their front-page editorial: “Eliza Izquierdo is finally at peace. May her mother never find a moment of it again.”
In June of 1996, Awilda Lopez pleaded guilty to murder after maintaining her innocence for months. She cried during the court proceeding in Manhattan Supreme Court before finally admitting that she had thrown Elisa at the wall. “Elisa languished unconscious in the apartment until the next day with brain fluid leaking from an ear,” said Assistant Manhattan District Attorney Donna Henken.5 According to Awilda’s lawyer, she was “horrified by her own actions.” Prosecutors had agreed to Awilda’s plea to spare her two surviving children the trauma of reliving Elisa’s death at a trial.
Awilda was sentenced to 15 years to life imprisonment where she has received all of the protections of the legal system – the same very system that failed to save Elisa. The tragic life and death of Elisa Izquierdo became a symbol of the failures in New York’s Child Welfare Administration and Family Court, whose bureaucracy allowed this little girl to slip right through the cracks and into her grave. The story became a national disgrace and lawyers would cite the case as an example of chronic and systemic problems. By 1996, Mayor Giuliani declared that he would abolish the city’s Child Welfare Administration and rebuild it from top to bottom. He also signed Elisa’s Law into legislation which was designed to balance the need for increased accountability through public awareness and government oversight.
- Time, 24 June, 2001 – “Abandoned to her Fate”
- New York Daily, 28 November, 1995 – “A Bitter Last Farewell”
- Akron Beacon Journal, 30 November, 1995 – “Death of an Abused Girl”
- New York Daily News, 30 November, 1995 – “Slain 6-Year-Old Is Laid to Rest”
- New York Daily News, 25 June, 1996 – “Mom Pleads Guilty to Elisa’s Murder”