Elisa Izquierdo (February 11, 1989 – November 22, 1995) was a six-year-old Puerto Rican–Cuban-American girl who died from a brain hemorrhage inflicted by her mother, Awilda Lopez, at the peak of a prolonged and increasing campaign of physical, mental, and emotional child abuse conducted between 1994 and 1995.
Described by authorities in New York as the "worst case of child abuse they had ever seen," the life and death of Elisa Izquierdo first made city, then national headlines when it became clear that the city's child welfare system (now the Administration for Children's Services) had missed numerous opportunities to intervene with her family and ultimately save her life. These failures to protect Elisa subsequently became the inspiration for Elisa's Law, a major restructuring of the New York City Child Welfare System; increasing accountability of all parties involved in child welfare within the city and reducing areas of confidentiality relating to public disclosure in cases of this nature. Elisa's Law was implemented in February 1996.
Elisa has been referred to as a modern-day Cinderella because she had initially been under the protection of a loving father and had befriended Prince Michael of Greece—who had offered to pay for her private tuition until 12th grade—before being placed into the permanent custody of her mother.
Elisa Izquierdo was born on February 11, 1989, in Woodhull Hospital Brooklyn, New York. Her father, Gustavo, was a Cuban immigrant who had emigrated to America with aspirations to become a dance teacher, whereas her mother, Awilda, was a Puerto Rican raised in Brooklyn. The pair met at a Fort Greene homeless shelter two years prior to Elisa's birth, where Gustavo worked part-time as a cleaner and caterer. Awilda herself was a temporary resident at the shelter, having been evicted from the apartment she shared with a previous partner named Ruben Rivera (with whom she had borne two children) due to the couple's failure to pay rent—in part caused by her extensive usage of narcotics. The two began a temporary relationship, although reportedly, this ended when Gustavo discovered Awilda – at the time pregnant with Elisa – was a regular user of crack cocaine. Concern by her own family as to her extensive usage of drugs resulted in Awilda losing custody of her two eldest children, Rubencino and Kasey, to her own family in January 1989.
When Elisa was born, she was addicted to crack cocaine, requiring social workers to immediately notify the city's child welfare administration services as to her condition. As a result of her mother's evident addiction, full custody of Elisa was awarded to her father, Gustavo, who himself had no experience of parenting. By all accounts, Gustavo was a doting, caring father to Elisa: attending parenting classes; seeking advice from relatives as to how to care for his daughter; organizing celebrations for her first birthdays and renting a banquet hall to celebrate her baptism at age four. One family friend later related: "She (Elisa) was his life. He would always say she was his princess."
In 1990, Gustavo enrolled his daughter in the Montessori preschool, although shortly thereafter, his incipient ailing health complicated his ability to pay for Elisa's schooling. As Elisa was such an outstanding and promising student and Gustavo such a dedicated father, both teachers and the school principal introduced her to one of the school's patrons, Prince Michael of Greece, in 1993. Reportedly, upon his arrival at the school, Elisa leaped into Prince Michael's arms, and stayed by his side for the rest of the day. He in turn offered to pay for Elisa's private tuition at the independent Brooklyn Friends School until 12th grade; she in turn responded to this gesture with a handwritten note expressing her gratitude. Occasionally thereafter, Prince Michael of Greece would send Elisa small gifts, to which she would express her thanks by responding with drawings or notes.
Partial custodial rights of mother
The same year Elisa was enrolled in preschool, a social worker signed an affidavit stating that Awilda had successfully beaten her addiction, had secured permanent accommodation within the Rutgers Houses project in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and had married a maintenance worker named Carlos Lopez, with whom she was now expecting her fourth child. In December 1990, having given birth to a daughter named Taisha, she regained custody of her two oldest children.
In November 1991, Awilda Lopez secured the right to obtain unsupervised visitation rights to Elisa: this ruling awarded her custody of the child every second weekend. Reportedly, Awilda's two oldest children informed relatives that throughout these unsupervised visits, Elisa would be beaten and neglected by her mother and stepfather. These relatives did not inform authorities of these revelations.
Both Elisa's father and her teachers noted the child bore bruising and other signs of physical mistreatment when she returned from these unsupervised visits. One of the locations of these injuries was Elisa's genitalia and the child did divulge that her mother had repeatedly hit her and locked her in cupboards, adding that she had no desire to see her mother again. Her father also noted that Elisa had begun bedwetting in addition to losing control of her bowels, and would regularly experience nightmares upon learning she was to be in the custody of her mother for even short periods of time. Another family acquaintance noted that Elisa would always vomit upon her return from these visits to her mother, and refused to enter bathrooms.
Death of father
Both Gustavo Izquierdo and Elisa's teachers did inform authorities of the abuse Elisa was enduring at the hands of her mother. These revelations were also disclosed by Elisa herself to a social worker and her father did apply in 1992 to have Awilda Lopez's visitation rights ceased; however, the courts ruled that the visitation rights could continue, albeit with the conditions Awilda must not strike or otherwise harm her daughter.
In 1993, Gustavo Izquierdo formed plans to relocate with Elisa to his native Cuba. He is known to have purchased airline tickets for himself and his daughter, with the travel date being May 26, 1994. However, in May, Gustavo was admitted to hospital with acute respiratory complications (subsequently diagnosed as lung cancer). Gustavo Izquierdo died on May 26; the same date he had planned to travel to Cuba with Elisa. Upon hearing news of Gustavo's death, the director of Elisa's school, Phyllis Bryce, contacted a family court judge to express the grave concerns of both herself and numerous members of the school's staff as to the child's safety should her mother gain custody of her.
Full custodial awarding to mother
Upon hearing news of Gustavo's death, Awilda applied for full, permanent custody of Elisa. She was initially granted temporary custody of the child. Upon hearing the initial awarding of Elisa's temporary custody to Awilda Lopez, Elsa Canizares—the cousin of Gustavo Izquierdo—challenged the ruling and herself applied for custody of Elisa; citing the documented abuse Elisa had previously endured during the unsupervised weekend visits with her mother. Both the head teacher of the school Elisa still attended and Prince Michael of Greece also wrote personal letters to Judge Phoebe Greenbaum, opposing the initial temporary custody of Elisa awarded to Awilda Lopez upon the death of her father and endorsing Elsa Canizares's application to obtain permanent custody of Elisa. Furthermore, in his letter to Judge Greenbaum, Prince Michael of Greece emphasized his intentions to pay for Elisa's education at Brooklyn Friends School should Elsa Canizares be awarded custody of the child.
Lacking sufficient funding to pay legal fees, Elsa Canizares attended court hearings without any legal representation, whereas backing Awilda Lopez's application for custody were a lawyer from the Legal Aid Society and a federally funded parenting program. According to Elsa Canizares, at this hearing, the legal representatives for Awilda testified as to her "valiant efforts" to refrain from relapsing into drug use, falsely claiming that caseworkers had visited the Lopez residence and that Elisa had expressed a strong desire to live with her biological mother. Furthermore, Canizares was criticized by Awilda's legal representation at this hearing for having "the nerve" to try and take Elisa from her biological mother. To this accusation, Elsa Canizares replied her nerve was borne out of fear of Elisa being placed with her mother.
Prince Michael of Greece, reflecting on a personal letter he wrote to Judge Phoebe Greenbaum endorsing Elsa Canizares's application to be awarded custody of Elisa Izquierdo in 1994
Awilda Lopez's application to obtain permanent custody of Elisa was approved by Judge Greenbaum in September 1994.
Escalation of abuse
Upon being awarded full custody of her daughter, Awilda withdrew Elisa from the private school she had been attending, and enrolled her in Manhattan's Public School 126, where Elisa was quickly observed to be withdrawn, emotionally disturbed, uncommunicative, and to urinate frequently. The principal of this school also noted that Elisa bore numerous bruises, walked with apparent difficulty, and had evidently begun tearing out sections of her hair.
On March 14, 1995, an anonymous letter was posted to the Manhattan Child Welfare Authorities. The author of this letter stated that Awilda Lopez had cut off much of Elisa's hair and had begun locking her in a dark room for extensive periods of time. Six days later, Elisa was admitted to hospital with a fractured shoulder—the wound having been untreated for three days.
The increasing concerns of staff at Public School 126 regarding evident abuse were also reported to the Manhattan Child Welfare Authorities. Reportedly, the Manhattan Child Welfare Authorities soon replied to the school that their concerns were "not reportable" due to a lack of direct evidence of child abuse or neglect. As such, this report was rejected. A further factor in this decision was the fact Elisa had been under court-ordered caseworker supervision. In response to the school having reporting the suspected abuse of her daughter to the Manhattan Child Welfare Authorities and a subsequent home visit by staff at the school, Awilda—by this time known to have reverted to regular crack cocaine use—withdrew Elisa from Public School 126 in the spring of 1995. She made no effort to enroll Elisa in any other school.
Reportedly, despite the fact that in addition to having by this time borne six children (three of whom had been born after Elisa), Awilda targeted Elisa for almost all of the physical, mental, and emotional abuse she inflicted upon her children. After withdrawing her from her school, Elisa was locked in her bedroom, was denied any opportunity to socialize with her siblings or to leave the apartment and was denied access to the toilet—being forced to use a chamber pot. Neighbors also reported hearing sounds of Elisa being beaten and otherwise abused; later reporting hearing Elisa's repeatedly pleading with her mother to stop hitting her and stating such pleas as: "Mommy, Mommy, please stop! No more! I'm sorry." Some neighbors did report their suspicions of child abuse to child welfare authorities; however, no effective action was taken. Other neighbors reportedly knew of the abuse Elisa and—to a much lesser degree—her siblings endured, but failed to notify authorities.
A representative from the federally funded parenting program which had endorsed Awilda's initial motion to achieve sole custody of her daughter also reported that Awilda had herself phoned him, complaining that her daughter was unable to control her bladder or bowels, had cut off her hair and was apparently drinking from the toilet. In response to this phone call from Awilda, this representative did call a representative from the Manhattan Child Welfare Authorities, who rebuffed his requests to visit the Lopez residence.
Lieutenant Luis Gonzalez, recollecting the extensive physical, mental, emotional and sexual abuse suffered by Elisa Izquierdo (1995)
Other indignities and abuse inflicted by Awilda upon her daughter (some of which were witnessed by Elisa's siblings) included repeated punching and kicking; forcing the child to eat her own feces or drink ammoniated water; mopping the floor with Elisa's hair; inflicting burns upon the child's head, face and body, and sexually violating her both vaginally and anally with a hairbrush or toothbrush. Awilda's partner, Carlos Lopez (himself also a regular user of drugs) is also known to have repeatedly physically abused and neglected Elisa and her two older siblings primarily due to the fact none of the three were his biological children.
On November 15, Carlos Lopez was jailed in relation to a violation of parole. Seven days later, on the evening of November 22, Awilda phoned one of her sisters, Mercy Torres, to report that Elisa was "like retarded on the bed", with fluid (later determined to be brain fluid) leaking from her nose and mouth. In addition, Lopez informed her sister that Elisa would not eat or drink. When Mrs. Torres insisted Awilda take Elisa to the hospital, Awilda replied she would "think about it" after she had finished cleaning the dishes. The following morning, Awilda contacted a neighbor, whom she invited to view Elisa's lifeless body. Upon being unable to locate signs of life, this neighbor told Awilda to call the police, which she refused to do. In response, this neighbor immediately called police and an ambulance as Awilda threatened to commit suicide.
In custody, Awilda initially confessed to having thrown Elisa head-first into a concrete wall two days prior to her contacting her neighbor, adding that Elisa neither talked nor walked after this incident. A subsequent autopsy revealed numerous injuries including broken fingers (one bone of which was protruding through the skin), damage to internal organs, deep welts and burns across her head, face and body. In addition, her genitalia and rectum also bore evidence of trauma, including tearing. Forensically, it was proven that the injuries had been sustained over a prolonged period of time.
Elisa Izquierdo's funeral was held on November 29, 1995. The service was officiated by the Reverend Gianni Agostinelli, who informed the estimated 300 mourners in attendance that Elisa had been murdered not only by her own mother, but by the "silence of many, by the neglect of child-welfare institutions and the moral mediocrity that has intoxicated our neighborhoods".
Prior to Elisa's burial, a wake was held. Those present at Elisa's wake and funeral included relatives, neighbors, politicians, Prince Michael of Greece, and members of the public touched by the case.
Elisa's casket remained open throughout the ceremony. A single red rose was placed in her hand; her coffin adorned with white flowers, and a Barbie doll given to Elisa by her father which she is known to have cherished was placed alongside her body. Many mourners placed additional flowers, toys, stuffed animals and notes of sympathy in and upon her coffin prior to her casket being closed and her burial at Cypress Hills Cemetery. Elisa's gravestone bears a plaque, with the inscription reading: "World please watch over the children."
On June 25, 1996, Awilda Lopez pleaded guilty to the second-degree murder of her daughter in a hearing held before Judge Alvin Schlesinger at the New York's State Supreme Court. Upon the advice of her attorney, Daniel Ollen, Lopez pleaded guilty to this deal offered by the prosecution team with the knowledge she would become eligible for parole after serving 15 years' imprisonment.
The following month, Judge Schlesinger sentenced Awilda Lopez to a term of 15 years to life imprisonment. Prior to formal sentencing, Judge Schlesinger openly criticized the child welfare system within New York, stating: "We have not created procedures to do everything necessary to protect the young and vulnerable in this society. The system has failed to protect our babies, and don't tell me how much it costs. If anything is to become of this horrendous tragedy, [then] it will be that we give priority to these babies."
Although Awilda Lopez initially became eligible for parole in 2010, she has remained incarcerated since August 1996.
Lopez was most recently denied parole in July 2018; her next scheduled parole hearing is to be held in July 2020. As of 2019, she remains incarcerated at the maximum security Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women.
On October 29, 1996, Elisa's stepfather, Carlos Lopez, was sentenced to serve between one-and-a-half and three years in prison, to run consecutive with the sentence he was serving at the time of Elisa's death. This sentence was in relation to one specific instance of physical abuse dating from October 31, 1995 in which he had repeatedly banged Elisa's head against a concrete wall in the presence of her siblings.
Although Carlos Lopez pleaded guilty to this charge of attempted second-degree assault, claiming he had not actually assaulted Elisa, but had opted to do so to spare his children the emotional trauma of having to testify against him, Judge Schlesinger rejected this claim outright, adding that the prosecution team had largely chosen to charge Carlos Lopez with this charge to spare Elisa's siblings any further psychological or emotional trauma.
The public outrage at Elisa's death was fuelled by revelations that despite Awilda Lopez's evident and spiraling drug addiction and the obvious and increasing signs of the ongoing physical, mental, and emotional abuse Elisa was suffering at the hands of her mother and stepfather, not only had a judge awarded custody of the child to her mother in 1994 in spite of protestations from her family and school, but numerous instances of concerns for Elisa's safety reported to child welfare agencies such as the Manhattan Child Welfare Authorities by various individuals since that date had ultimately failed to remove Elisa from the custody of her mother.
Following Elisa's death and subsequent public funeral, her life story became the subject of numerous local and national media articles, from local tabloids such as the New York Daily News and The New York Post to her story being given front page coverage of the December 11, 1995 edition of Time Magazine under the title "A Shameful Death". Elisa's story was also featured on an August 1996 episode of Dateline NBC. Much of the media coverage devoted to this case was openly scathing of New York's child welfare agencies.
Judge Phoebe Greenbaum
Following Elisa's death, Judge Greenbaum was subjected to severe criticism regarding her 1994 decision to award custody of Elisa to Awilda Lopez as opposed to Elsa Canizares. Judge Greenbaum responded to this criticism by claiming she had been merely following procedural recommendations when she had made her custodial decision. In response to Greenbaum's claim, then-Mayor of New York City Rudolph Giulliani would state to the media: "The judge ultimately makes the decision, based on all the facts and records, and is supposed to go behind those things [to] make determinations."
In response to the death of Elisa Izquierdo, the then-Mayor of New York City, Rudolph Giuliani, instigated an urgent review of the city's child welfare system. This review inspired the creation of the Administration for Children's Services—an agency solely devoted to the issue of child welfare in New York.
On February 12, 1996, Governor George Pataki formally signed Elisa's Law into legislation. This legislation, named in Elisa's honor, was signed into law in the presence of several relatives of Elisa, plus numerous social workers and school teachers who had all attempted to intervene and/or inform child welfare authorities in their collective efforts to prevent the child being with or remaining in the awarded custody of her mother.
Elisa's Law is designed to balance the need for increased accountability through public awareness and government oversight with the privacy interests of individuals involved in child protective services cases—particularly with regards to the deaths of children previously reported to child welfare services as suffering any form of neglect or abuse. All reports pertaining to the deaths of children resulting from child abuse available for public scrutiny do not name the actual deceased child or children, or the actual caseworker(s) assigned to investigate reports of suspected child abuse or neglect relating to the deceased child or children in question; however, these reports do list each and every complaint and/or report submitted relating to the child or children, and the agency's actual response. In addition, these public records contain an assessment detailing whether or not the agency's overall response had been adequate.
Elisa's Law continues to hold the child welfare agency of New York City and the Administration for Children's Services (ACS) publicly accountable for its performance.
Elisa Izquierdo's five siblings were raised in separate foster homes. Reportedly, all suffered acute psychological trauma due to the acts of extreme physical and mental cruelty they had been forced to witness inflicted upon their sister.
- Douglas, John; Olshaker, Mark (1997). Journey Into Darkness: The FBI's Premier Investigator Penetrates the Minds and Motives of the Most Terrifying Serial Killers. New York City: Pocket Books. ISBN 978-1-439-19981-7.
- Television talk show host Rolonda Watts conducted an interview with Awilda Lopez prior to her June 1996 sentencing as part of her eponymous Rolonda daytime talk show series. Commissioned by King World Productions, this interview was incorporated into a 45-minute episode, titled Little Lost Girl: The Life and Death of Elisa Izquierdo and was broadcast in April 1996.
Cited works and further reading
- Douglas, John; Olshaker, Mark (1997). Journey Into Darkness: The FBI's Premier Investigator Penetrates the Minds and Motives of the Most Terrifying Serial Killers. Pocket Books. ISBN 978-1-439-19981-7
- Eckel, M. David; Herling, Bradley L. (2011). Deliver Us From Evil: Boston University Studies in Philosophy and Religion. Continuum International Publishing Group . ISBN 978-1-441-11641-3
- Fisch, Mark (1996). Criminology 1997/1998. McGraw-Hill Higher Education. ISBN 978-0-697-35421-1
- Meyer, Cheryl; Oberman, Michelle; White, Kelly (2001). Mothers who Kill Their Children. New York University Press. ISBN 0-814-75643-3
- Roberts, Dorothy (2009). Shattered Bonds: The Color Of Child Welfare. Basic Books. ISBN 978-0-786-73064-3
- Waldfogel, Jane (2001). The Future of Child Protection: How to Break the Cycle of Abuse and Neglect. Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-00723-9