Friday, November 28, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

How a child died in her mother's basement

Charlene Wise was sitting at a kitchen table in Norristown when her water broke. It was just after midnight and her sixth child was about to be born.

What concerned her, however, was that she and her sister, Darlene, were running out of crack.

A burst of pain cut through her drugged haze. She lay down.

"Do you want me to call 911? " Darlene asked.

Charlene suggested that her sister go "do some prostitution," and buy more crack.

The pain got worse and Darlene called an ambulance.

"Don't push!" paramedics shouted as they rushed to the hospital.

The baby girl was born on Sept. 19, 1991, blue in the face, with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. The doctors and nurses were angry with Charlene. "You knew you weren't supposed to get high," they told her.

In the morning, they asked her to choose a name for the baby.

Charlene wanted a name that sounded like her own.

"Charnae," she said.

She never got to hold her baby.

When social workers checked Charlene's case history, they found that her five other children had been put in foster care after she was caught living in a crack house in Pottstown. They decided to place Charnae in foster care, too.

On the way out of the hospital, Charlene peered through the nursery window. There were cards attached to the cribs. One pink tag read, "Baby Wise. "

A beautiful baby. Charlene felt bad about losing Charnae. But she felt worse that she had not gotten high in many hours.

Six years later, after Charnae died in a horrific case of child abuse, Charlene would remember the day of the birth as the first of many occasions when she had failed her daughter.

* Charnae was almost 3 when she was returned to her mother.

Charlene had desperately wanted her children back. She convinced Montgomery County social workers that she had turned her life around. She found a home in Philadelphia at 3017 W. Harper St. and struggled through a drug-rehabilitation program.

Denisha, her oldest, came back around Thanksgiving 1992. She was 13. Kadedra, 5, and Gwendolyn, 4, followed.

Several months later, social workers told Charlene it was time for Donte, then 4, and Charnae to return.

Charlene felt she hardly knew them. She had visited the children in their foster home. Charnae was impaired by the crack her mother had smoked while pregnant. Social workers said Charnae and Donte were slow learners and aggressive.

Charlene wasn't sure she could deal with them just yet. She had just had another baby, her seventh. With Charnae and Donte, she would have six children at home - her eldest son, Timothy, 12, was not returned.

"I can handle only so many kids," she told social workers.

"It's like this, Ms. Wise," one replied. "You either take them now or we put them up for adoption. "

"I'll take them," she said.

Charnae, who had been slow to walk, now wouldn't sit still. If Charlene gave her dolls, she would rip their hair out and yank off their clothes. Donte was the same.

To calm them, Charlene banned candy. She tried the time-out method. She yelled. She had neither partner nor extended family to help her. The house on Harper Street rang with her screams:

"Stop it! Stop it! Stop it! Stop it! "

Donte and Charnae defeated her at every turn. Donte would prop a chair against the kitchen cabinet, climb onto the stove and take candy out of a jar. Then he'd race upstairs and share the loot with Charnae.

She was the quiet one. Charlene called her a "sneaky little beaver. "

Charlene did not have the patience or the skill to deal with them. She slapped them, hit them with shoes and hairbrushes, pummeled them with her fists.

That only made things worse. Charnae and Donte wet their beds and soiled the mattresses. Charlene banned them from drinking water after 9 p.m. - and jammed shut the tap on the bathroom sink. Donte responded by twisting his head under the bathtub tap. Charnae drank from the toilet.

Denisha was another worry. At 15, she became a mother, making Charlene, at 32, a grandmother. In 1995, Charlene gave birth to her eighth child - with a fifth father.

Through it all, she smoked crack.

She had a 9 p.m. bedtime rule for the children. At 11, she would slip out of the house and buy some "get-high. "

Depending on her money situation - she was receiving welfare checks for three children and Social Security checks for three others - she would go out for crack many times a night. Sometimes, she would still be smoking when the children woke up in the morning and asked for help going to school.

Too tired to get out of bed, she would tell them to stay home and watch television.

If anyone outside the house had cared to look, there were numerous signs that the family was headed downhill.

On Feb. 23, 1996, Charnae was rushed to Hahnemann University Hospital with a severe scalp infection. She was withdrawn and apathetic. Hospital records show that staff worried Charlene was using drugs.

In October, the city Department of Human Services (DHS) - responsible for ensuring the safety of Charlene's children - received word that Donte had gone to school with a black eye. The boy said that Charlene had hit him with a broom.

Another report said Kadedra was injured after she put her leg on a hot plate to warm herself. Her pants caught fire and she suffered second- and third-degree burns.

On Christmas Eve 1996, Charlene and Denisha had a huge fight. Charlene did not give Denisha's son the Christmas toy she had promised. On Christmas Day, Denisha, then 17, took her son and moved out.

That left six children in the house on Harper Street alone with Charlene. The oldest was Kadedra. She was 9.

Charlene's addiction had its rituals. Each night, after the children were in bed, she would lovingly organize her drugs, her cigarettes and her beer.

She was chasing what drug users call the "ghost," the euphoria she'd had when she first started using.

She needed absolute quiet because the drugs made her paranoid. She called it "bugging. " If she thought she heard a car on the street, she thought the police were coming for her.

Like an athlete preparing for a race, she needed to concentrate.

And then she would hear a creak - Charnae and Donte creeping around in the back bedroom again. They seemed to have a sixth sense about when she was getting high.

If she yelled at them to stop, the high went away.

If she leapt up to hit them, the feeling vanished.

If she slapped them and made them cry, her mood disintegrated.

One day in 1997, blind with anger, she grabbed them both and pushed them into the basement. She didn't shut the door, but the basement was dark and dirty and they were terrified. When she let them out a little while later, they had cried so much that they went right to sleep.

She had found a way to get high in peace.

Charlene found it easy to fool social workers. She yelled at them when they paid surprise visits and demanded they give her advance notice. She cleaned the house and stocked the refrigerator before the scheduled visits.

She recalled receiving compliments from them on her housekeeping.

They did not spot her drug paraphernalia. Charlene burned incense to mask the smell of crack.

She recalls one asking, "Ms. Wise, are you getting high? "

"No."

"We're going to start giving you random drug tests. "

But they never did. In spring 1997, she started barring social workers from the house. She was smoking heavily and wasn't ready even for scheduled inspections.

The Juvenile Justice Center, a private Germantown agency that the Department of Human Services contracted to provide services to the family, referred the case back to the city.

"We can't push our way in," executive director Richard Chapman said. "If cooperation is not forthcoming, we write to DHS and say we can't ensure the welfare of the children. "

Charlene remembered DHS workers knocked on her door. She refused to open it. They called her on the phone and threatened to call the police. She gave them an appointment to visit.

A social worker visited June 4. Charlene opened the door. All she wanted to do was get high and sleep. She told the social worker that she had stopped letting DHS into the house because she was leaving town.

Shortly thereafter, DHS closed its file on Charlene Wise.

According to DHS's own rules, cases cannot be closed without assessing whether the children are living in a safe home.

That assessment was never made.

The basement had no fan or air conditioning, and its window was nailed shut. Putting Charnae and Donte down there in the summer heat troubled Charlene.

But after a few times, it got easier. It helped that social workers no longer bothered her and she stayed high all day and all night.

Charnae and Donte seemed to get used to the basement, so Charlene shut the door and left them there longer. Sometimes she could hear them playing together and laughing.

The punishment had a marked effect on Donte, who grew quieter. Charlene decided to stop punishing him. Now when Charnae misbehaved, Charlene put her in the basement by herself.

Each hour the little girl was shut away meant an hour of peace. Each night she was locked up meant a good "get-high. " Each time Charnae came out of the basement unharmed, after longer and longer periods of confinement, it seemed less and less like a terrible thing.

Charnae would knock on the door when she wanted to go to the bathroom. Charlene would let her out, bathe her and feed her. Charnae would play with her siblings. Then she would go back down.

The novel punishment became routine. The abnormal became normal.

The balance tipped noiselessly: Charnae wasn't being put in the basement now and then. She was being let out now and then.

Then even that stopped. Charlene would leave a plate of food on the top step as she cleaned up or fed the other children. Sometimes the food would be gone when Charlene returned; often the plate would be untouched.

In July, Charlene went all the way down to the basement and saw that Charnae was using a bucket as a potty.

On Aug. 21, a month before Charnae's sixth birthday, Charlene opened the basement door. The little girl was sitting on the top step.

"Tub time," Charlene said.

Charlene bathed Charnae and combed her hair.

Charnae didn't look good. She stumbled as she walked.

The thought of taking her to a doctor frightened Charlene because no one outside the house would understand; the basement punishment was a family secret.

"What's the matter with you? " Charlene asked.

Charnae was silent.

Charlene steeled herself - there was nothing wrong with the little girl. She never did walk straight. She was just tired; she probably needed sleep.

Charlene led her back to the basement. There was no thought of punishment anymore - Charnae hadn't done anything wrong. The basement had simply become the place where she stayed.

Charnae went quietly. Charlene shut the door behind her.

Frank Wise's car broke down a few blocks from his sister's house one July evening while Charnae was dying. He was with his fiancee. They decided to walk over to Charlene's for the night.

His niece Gwen opened the door. The children were excited to see Uncle Frank. His mind was on the broken-down car as he slept that night on the living room couch. He didn't think to make a head count and didn't ask where Charnae was.

He did recall that the house was quieter. He knew that Charnae was a difficult child.

The next morning, Frank saw Gwen and Kadedra, but he was worried about his car and didn't wonder about Charnae.

Other family members dropped by that summer, marching up Charlene's front steps, past the boarded-up basement window, a few feet from Charnae.

At a July 4 family get-together, Charlene's 17-year-old son, Timothy, who had long been on his own, told Charlene, "I bet if I go down to the basement, I would find Charnae. "

"Go ahead! " Charlene dared him.

He didn't go.

Many of Charlene's relatives had troubles of their own. Frank had been on probation for attempted theft. Barbara, Charlene's sister, was on probation for holding up a fast-food restaurant. Charlene's sister, Darlene, a fellow crack addict and prostitute, was to be found unconscious in a city shelter on April 23, 1998. She later died and was taken to the morgue, where city officials waited to hear from worried relatives.

No one called.

The family had never been close. Children came and went in an unceasing cycle of foster care, group homes and social workers. Children were born, children were taken away, children returned.

A concerned neighbor, Tammy Dennis, invited Charlene to church one Sunday. Charlene promised to attend with her children. But when Dennis came to pick them up, no one answered the door.

Dennis, who grew up on the block, remembered a time when children ran freely in and out of one another's homes. Then crack arrived. People became secretive. They closed their doors and windows. Dennis, a poised and collected woman, returned to the block in 1996 after two years in Indiana. She had to learn a new, unspoken rule: "You see what you see, but you see nothing. "

Charlene herself lied about what was happening, but she lied poorly. She told her cousin Len Margarita Wise that Charnae was at Harper Street. She told Len's mother that Charnae was with relatives in North Carolina.

In the late summer, she phoned Denisha, then 18, who had last seen her younger sister in May. Denisha had thought Charnae looked malnourished.

"The foster care people have come to take her away," Charlene said on the phone. "They are pulling out in their car now. . . . Charnae is looking out of the window and is waving at me. . . . Look at all those nosy neighbors looking. "

A few days later, Denisha casually asked her mother which neighbors had seen Charnae being taken away.

"No one. "

Charnae was dying. But Charlene couldn't bring herself to articulate the thought. On Aug. 22, 1997, she sent Kadedra and Gwen down to check on their sister.

She was too afraid to go herself.

The two small children had not seen Charnae in a while. When they returned from the basement, they were hysterical: "Charnae is real bad off. "

Charlene calmed them down. She told them to say nothing about it - it was a family secret.

A little while later, Charnae knocked on the basement door.

"Mommy, can I have some water? "

Charlene opened the door and gave her a glass. Charnae looked weak. Charlene shut the door.

On Aug. 23, Charlene carried a plate with hot dogs and spaghetti halfway down the basement stairs. She handed the plate to Charnae.

"Thank you. "

"I'll be back," Charlene said. She was going to a birthday party for her grandson at Denisha's house.

"OK. "

Charlene dressed and got ready to leave. On her way out, she shouted, "I'll see you when I get back, baby. "

If Charnae replied, Charlene didn't hear.

At the party, she took Denisha aside and said she had something important to tell her: Charnae wasn't going to make it till next week.

Denisha drove Charlene home that night. She demanded to see Charnae. Charlene refused and had Denisha drop her off a block from home. She walked the rest of the way.

Once home, she turned on all the lights. The thought of Charnae in the basement had clung to her all evening like a shroud.

She threw open the basement door.

"Charnae," she called out. "Charnae, you down there? "

Silence.

Charlene scrambled down the steps. The little girl was lying on the floor in the fetal position. Charlene bent down and touched her. Charnae felt cold and hard.

Charlene jerked her hand back. She spun around and ran up the unsteady stairs. She didn't stop when she reached the landing, didn't stop until she reached the bathroom on the second floor. She slipped inside and jammed the door shut behind her.

Call 911. The thought terrified her. She couldn't. She just couldn't.

The children need me, she thought.

She turned on the tap so that the other children would not hear her cries. And then, muffled by the sound of rushing water, she wept. For the child who had died, for what she had done, and for all she was going to have to pay.

On Sept. 16, 1997, police found Charnae's skeleton, arrested Charlene and charged her with murder.

Joan Reeves, commissioner of the Department of Human Services, called Charnae's death "unimaginable" and ordered an internal investigation of the case.

The results were never made public. The agency declined all requests for interviews for this article, citing pending litigation.

The following year, a state review of the DHS internal investigation found a string of serious lapses in which the agency had not followed its own policies for child safety: There were times when no social worker was assigned to the family. A required risk assessment was not conducted in February 1997. There was no record-keeping during the crucial period between February 1997 and Charnae's death. Long-term family plans were not made. The case was arbitrarily closed.

In a statement about its responsibility, DHS told state investigators "at no time was there a determination that acts of commission or omission by the department or its agents could have predicted or prevented the tragedy that befell this child. "

In March, Charlene was convicted of third-degree murder. Judge James Lineberger sentenced her to 28 to 56 years in prison.

In July, Denisha Wise decided to sue the city and state on behalf of her dead sister, charging that DHS had failed in its duty to protect Charnae.

"DHS and the state were grossly negligent and recklessly indifferent," said Neil Perloff, Denisha's lawyer.

"If I come into money, it would be for my siblings," Denisha said. "I will make sure they have a nice education like I never had. I will get Charnae a headstone. We had no money to get Charnae a headstone. Whatever is left for me, I don't care. "

On a scorching summer afternoon, Darnell Harris took one lunging step to the left of a gravestone marked "Perkins. "

The grave-digger then took two steps down and drew his boot across the grass to mark the spot of Charnae's grave. He looked up to see whether it aligned with the haphazard markers strewn around. He then revised his estimate by two feet.

"Here," he said confidently.

Actually Charnae's grave was a little to the left of Harris' calculation - Denisha had placed a small marker on the ground that read "Sister. "

At the Merion Memorial Park in Bala Cynwyd, no stone marks Charnae's final rest. No epitaph describes her days. For a life so short, so brutal and unloved, what would it say?

Shankar Vedantam's e-mail address is svedantam@phillynews.com

* This account is based on extensive interviews with the Wise family, the Rev. Tom Cairns and investigators, and on court testimony and records.
More coverage
  • When a mother's care turns deadly
  • Shankar Vedantam INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
    Also on Philly.com
    Stay Connected