I hate broomsticks.
Old man Ford—who was believed to have raped a young girl across the street when we were growing up and allegedly murdered the blind shopkeeper a few doors down—used to haunt our block, carrying an empty five-gallon paint bucket and a brown, sawed-off broomstick. On the sight of his meaty bald head coming around the corner, my Uncle Ross would scoop me up, ferry me up the porch steps and plant me safely inside the house.
In the mid-’80s, another girl was rumored to have been sexually assaulted with a broken-off mop handle and her tormentor—a teenage boy—was convicted and sent to prison. And, back when he was 13 or 14 years old, my older brother Donnie caught the bad end of one the day my mother came home early from work to discovered him hanging out on the corner, puffing on a Kool cigarette with a group of boys. I watched him cower in fear, guarding his head with his boney chocolate brown arms, as she chased him into the back door and around the Formica-topped kitchen table.
Broomsticks. Zymere Perkins must’ve been afraid of them too. He was murdered—bludgeoned to death—with a wooden broom handle.
Last Monday, his mother carried his lifeless, malnourished body—his head bloodied after being bashed with a broomstick, his body covered in countless old cuts and bruises—into a Harlem hospital emergency room. Only 6 years old, Zymere’s life was tortured and brief.
There had been prior allegations of abuse, five separate incidents investigated by the Administration of Children’s Services in New York, leveled against the child’s mother and her live-in boyfriend—three times in the last 15 months alone and at least one “unsubstantiated” case dating back to the time of Zymere’s birth. Geraldine Perkins and Rysheim Smith now stand accused of endangering the welfare of a child and may now face murder charges— each blaming the other for beating him to death with a broomstick.
Perkins said Zymere only got spankings “here and there” and claims Smith, whom she reportedly met in a homeless shelter last year, “snapped.” She stood by as the 42-year-old kept thrashing her son with a broomstick until the child’s body fell “limp.”
“I’m not a baby killer,” the 26-year-old mother said, facing a judge in court.
There were warning signs—such as chronic absences from school and that time last April when Zymere complained to his teacher about the pain in his legs. Perkins was investigated by four different agencies at the time, including child services, the police department, the district attorney’s office and a local non-profit called Safe Horizons. Still, she retained custody and no charges were ever filed.
Much can be said about the overwhelming backlog of cases, but the fact is that contracted outside agencies, like Safe Horizons, have too much power to close cases without appropriate oversight. New York City officials also admit that training and supervision are all too often inadequate. Since the story of Zymere’s death broke last week, five child welfare workers, who handled previous investigations, have been reassigned to desk duty. Two caseworkers, two supervisors and a manager have been barred from handling cases, Deputy Mayor Dr. Herminia Palacio said at a press conference, pending the outcome of an investigation.
Mayor de Blasio, who defended ACS commissioner Gladys Carrion and announced a spate of lackluster reforms, called the child’s murder “unacceptable.” For her part, Carrion said, “We can’t protect them all.”
It’s too little and too late for Zymere. They should be reminded that platitudes don’t save children. That no one in a position of real authority has been held accountable for letting a child fall through the system’s cracks.
After he was killed, the medical examiner reportedly found extensive old wounds on the boy’s body. Presumably, nobody took Zymere to see a doctor after he suffered multiple broken ribs. Without treatment, the tetrapod bones simply fused themselves back together, city officials said.
Perkins claimed she didn’t know about the fractured bones and she blamed her son’s previous bruises on Zymere himself, saying he was a “little boy” who occasionally fell down playing. The day he died, according to Perkins, Smith was angry because “her son had defecated in a bucket,” according to DNAInfo New York.
Smith allegedly beat Zymere to a bloody pulp, then hung him from the bathroom door by his tank top. He then ordered Perkins, by her account, to watch TV and read the Bible. She put her son to bed, thinking he was asleep, and read a few passages of Scripture. By the time she took him to St. Luke’s Hospital, hours later, Zymere was already dead.
Mourners at the Church of the Open Door came by the hundreds eulogize “ZyZy.” His obituary recalled a little boy who loved Spider-Man and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. To kill him, the pastor said, was “an act of evil.”
Authorities now say the family lived in squalor. There was no working electricity in the small apartment on West 135th Street in Harlem and they reportedly used an extension cord to siphon power. Social workers discovered rooms infested with mold, rust, and mildew. There was rotting food in the refrigerator.
“I didn’t know how to leave,” Perkins said. “I wish I would’ve known. I wish I would’ve known he was no good… Until you walk a mile in my shoes, you have no right to judge me.”
The facts of the case are still under investigation and it may fall to a jury to decide whether Perkins had a hand in her son’s murder. Quite often, in instances of child abuse, domestic violence is also an element. In court, Perkins said she feared Smith.
But if she could not free her son, the system should have. Zymere’s death, by every account and conceivable measure, was a predictable and avoidable tragedy—carried out by a litany of unindicted co-conspirators. The system did not simply let Zymere down. It killed him.
Citing the ongoing investigation, Mayor de Blasio refused to answer most questions or offer details about what happened. His ACS commission said even less.
“From the very first day I started as commissioner I charged my agency and all my partners to treat every child we work with as if it is their own child,” Carrion said. “These children are no different than our own.”
Carrion is right. These are our children and it is our job to protect them—even against their parents and caregivers.
I hate broomsticks, but not nearly as much as I despise government bureaucrats who float lofty, defensive statements when when a child is murdered.