- September 1997
A Grave Memorial
Philadelphia on September
16, 1997, the police were called by an 18 year old woman stating that
mother had told her that her little sister, who was five years old, was
in the basement. Denisha told the police that her sister was dead.
spoken to her mother earlier on the phone and noted that her mothers
had sounded very strange and that she was talking in a very low whisper:
"I've something to tell you"
"What is it?"
house and Sergeant William Kelly was sure he was NOT going to
a body. He based this on the fact that there was no smell to indicated
that there was decomposing flesh in the home.
house through a window, due to the front door having been locked.
Kelly began his search by looking into closets, behind doors and into
bathtub. Making his way down the stairs, he found both the living room
and the kitchen to be empty. Opening the door to the basement, he found
that there was no light
so he went down the stairs very carefully. The last step was broken and
through a window which had been nailed shut, a small amount of light
him to see some trash under the stairs and a broom handle propped
he went up the stairs and unlocked the door and found Denisha Wise
for him. William radioed in to the station that the house was clear and
went to talk to Denisha:
upset and told them that her mother told her that Charnae was in the
William returned to the basement and picked up the broom handle to use
to spread around the trash that he had found in the basement. A sheet
cardboard was found and a mouse jumped out of that. Under the
he found a human skull.
Denisha had visited her mother and raised some questions about where
was. Charlene had been lying to her for months, tell her different
about how Charnae had been adopted or that she was with relatives in
state. Denisha had been searching everywhere she could think of and
came up with nothing. Finally, Denisha was worried enough to call the
services hotline and tell them that Charnae was missing and she also
she could be dead.
and her mother
had a strained relationship caused by her mothers use of the drug
The two fought all the time, though neither of them wanted to be the
to end the relationship and they would always make up.
call that night, Charlene was crying and told her daughter that
was calling from her sisters house. Charlene told her that she had been
tracked down by social workers and they had taken away her other
Denisha had been the one to tell the social workers where her mother
because she had ben worrying about Charnae. Denisha told her mother
she was going to hang up the phone:
on the phone. This is real important."
that point, Denisha
hung up the phone and got ready for bed. When Charlene called back,
asked her where Charnae was. At that point, Charlene asked her daughter
to call the social workers and tell them that Charnae was with her.
once again, hung up on her mother. The phone rang again, immediately:
just tell me."
sobs: "Charnae's dead. "
she at, Mom? "
"Wrapped in a sheet, under the stairs."
phone down and while screaming, ran out of the house and went to the
of her grandmother who lived near her home.
dirty and hot as three detective held flashlights over the shoulder of
Patricia Kauffman, a Forensic Pathologist who was on the scene and had
found the skull to be that of a child. The entire skeleton was there,
in a dirty sheet and the body had decomposed completely which explained
why there was no smell as William Kelly and entered the home.
peeled back the sheet to look for signs of how this child had died.
pants with Pocahontas on them, an orange and white striped t-shirt and
having a blue barrette in a tuft of hair that was left, this was how
Wise was found. The medical examiners office technicians wrapped the
in a clean sheet and placed it in a body bag. At the office of the
examiner, it was confirmed that the child was a girl, around the age of
that the child had starved to death, her muscles had wasted away, she
developed diarrhea which would have made the weight loss quicker. She
eventually have slipped into an unconscious state and her immune system
would have failed her. Death could have taken days or months and it
have been a very painful way to die. In the autopsy report Patricia
listed the death as homicide by unspecified means. Decomposition had
estimated to have taken about two weeks which meant that Charnae had
between July 16 and September 2.
to Philadelphia by homicide detectives who would talk to her as they
questioning you, how are you going to get back to Norristown? "
about this because it meant they were going to let her go. She mumbled
that she was going to take the train. With thoughts of picking up $300.
she had left at the shelter, she imagined herself getting high. She was
unable to concentrate while she was being questioned because she was
about a crack pipe and some crack rocks.
picking up her $300 and getting high. She imagined the sense of utter
as the drug washed over her. At the Police Administration building,
officers began to question her, she focused on just one thing: matches,
pipe and some rocks. Charlene waived her right to remain silent, her
to a lawyer and
statement, signing everything they asked her to.
"Will you tell us how the remains of your daughter
in the basement?"
"I put her there,"
"Was she dead or alive when you put her, Charnae,
"She was alive. "
"Tell us how your daughter Charnae got
and what happened to her. "
them an account of her own drug abuse and when she finished, they
her with the murder of Charnae and took her to a cell.
Donte Wise, Charlene's seven year old son to the Children's Hospital of
Philadelphia. Donte had lacerations and bruises on his body that
18. Donte would not make eye contact with anyone and he seemed
The Pediatrician, Angelo Giardino had seem these injuries on many
over the years. He was able to recognize marks on Donte's body that
he had been hit with a rope and a hairbrush and also had been tied up.
a pediatrician and child-abuse expert, the injuries were the signatures
of childhood for many youngsters. The loop-shaped mark on Donte's left
thigh was caused when he was struck by a rope that had been bent
on itself. The ligature marks on the boy's arms indicated he had been
up. There were pinpoint scars on his face: He had been struck with a
blocks from Charnae's
home lived a man, Reverend Tom Cairns. Tom Cairns was the Pastor of the
Trinity Baptist Church and he was a man who life as a mission with this
neighborhood being his very own responsibility. Nine days after
was arrested and stuck in a cell for the murder of Charnae, Tom Cairns
led a candlelight prayer vigil.
came to the prayer vigil. His thoughts beforehand had been written down
and he wondered what kind of a mother could kill her own child? Angry
Charlene, he wondered if hers had been a case of taking out her anger
a child in revenge against an ex-boyfriend or ex-husband. Walking home
after a disturbing thought came to his mind, someone in crises needed
a tiny part of the Delaware River from a tiny window in her cell, #49
the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center. She paced back and
in her cell until she felt like she was going to explode. She even
the walls while other inmates would scream "Get me outta here".
said she missed her children and it was obvious that she missed her
weeks later she
was told that she had a visitor. She didn't think it could be Denisha
all that happened. Charlene was strip searched and taken to a meeting
where a sign read "No kissing". When the door opened, two white
came into the room and Charlene didn't think they were there to see
It turned out to be two members of the church in her neighborhood, one
of which was Tom Cairns:
"Why did you come?"
"God sent me. Do you need a friend?"
""Do you want to be forgiven?"
"Do you want to be saved?"
"A thousand times, yes.
""Whatever happened, God loves you.
to Charlene about his own life experiences and how had come to the
He had asked God to help him and change his life and God had. Charlene
got back to her cell and kneeling down by her bunk, she began to pray.
She prayed to be forgiven, however, when she got up, she felt no
Tom Cairns and his church colleague had begun to pray, out loud,
the prison doors.
help you, if you let him."
our hearts and minds to minister to Charlene. Make us good
compassionate, yet honest. "
would visit Charlene
every two weeks. They were always in a room divided by a waist high
while guards watched them. Though she was younger than Tom, Charlene
older and wondered how he would understand all that she had done. She
ashamed at times when she was around him. She made a decision to hide
things from him.
about her own childhood hardships and how no one at home had said "I
you" or hugged each other. She spoke of not having any friends in
and being physically abused at home. At time she went to bed hungry and
how social workers had put her into foster care and into a group home.
Charlene had become pregnant by and older man at the age of 13, that
ended in a miscarriage. At the age of 16, Charlene was pregnant with
and at 17 she was pregnant again.
this time, she
moved in with a 40 year old man and they had three children. The man
her down to drive and told her he loved her, this was something she was
not used to hearing. At one point in their relationship the man held a
gun up to her head, she was very much afraid. Changing the angle on the
gun he pulled the trigger and as a bullet made a hole in the ceiling,
sound was extremely loud.
more Tom Cairns
would get to know Charlene, the more he came to believe she was a lost
pregnancy, she moved in with another man. He was 40. They had three
He taught her how to drive, how to cook, and how to conduct herself. He
said he loved her. In the Spring of 1991, Charlene became pregnant with
more Mr. Cairns
got to know Charlene, the more she seemed to him like a lost soul.
appeared remorseless and she felt that the only choices she could make
for herself were for her either to be a predator or a victim. She came
across as hostile in prison, though she was able to accept and enjoy
and positive attention from other
to get Charlene to see that without being honest she was not going to
forgiven. He wanted to hear her say the words "I'm Charlene Wise. I
my daughter". She would only say the "the crime I am accused of", when
she spoke of the death of Charnae. Any reminder of what she had done
cause her to become angry and she cause an outburst from her:
"I did not murder my child."
Cairns: "But what you did do was very bad. "
Charlene would simply change the subject.
months in prison
brought about a claim from Charlene:
life to Christ and asked him to forgive my sins,"
Cairns gave her
a hug and they prayed together. He also told her to read the Bible
day. Charlene had questions she wanted to ask and she did. One of the
was if she had to die in order to be forgiven. Tom told her no, that
would save her. She also wanted to know what it meant when it said when
someone slaps you on one cheek, show them the other. Tom told her it
from a the Sermon on the Mount:
that it was said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."
the case of
Charnae's death would come up on the news, the other inmates would get
after Charlene calling her basement girl or baby killed. Due to threats
that she would be poisoned, Charlene ate as little as possible. When
got bad, she would read her Bible or listen to Christian radio
During the 18 months in jail while waiting for her trial to begin,
and Denisha made up and she was the only visitor Charlene had besides
a deal, if she would plead guilty to charges that were related to the
of Charnae, she would get 30 to 60 years in prison, she turned down the
deal saying that what happened had been a mistake and she never
to kill Charnae. Charlene said that she was no longer on drugs and she
had changed with the help of Tom Cairns. She was confident that a jury
would set her free and she told Denisha
bad as you think, I'll be home. "
trial, Donte told
the people in the courtroom that he had gone to the basement and felt
Charnae's heart had become still. District Attorney Yvonne Ruiz had
Lawrence McGuffin read from the confession of Charlene, in court. He
it clear that it was NOT important to understand WHY
had killed Charnae, it was only important to know that she did and that
made it enough for a conviction. Anthony McKnight, who was Charlene's
said that she had not intended to kill charnae.
of third degree murder which surprised even the Judge who was sure they
would come back with a first degree murder conviction. Waiting for the
sentencing found Charlene once again pacing in her cell. She prayed
times during the day that God would forgive her and give her patience.
While her first days in prison were spent blaming the death of Charnae
on everyone and everything other than herself, Charlene FINALLY
admitted that she was to blame for Charnae's death. She spoke to Tom
and at last he had what he wanted, a confession:
my daughter's life had to be taken for this. She's in a better place
here on Earth.
she's one of God's little angels."
be that your body was free and your heart was in prison," he told her.
is free. It's much better this way. "
Cairns sent a
letter to the judge before Charlene was sentenced. Here is part of what
be completely certain about a person's sincerity and depth of faith,
Christian ministry I'm as sure as I can be that her faith and
from a foster mother who had three of Charlene's children. She wrote to
the judge to tell him how traumatized the three children were. A court
prognosis for significant change or progress was guarded."
in May, to 28 to 56 years by Judge Lineberger. The Judge said that the
was set due to the nature of the crimes she had committed.
in her cell,
looking out the window Charlene told her cellmate she was not
world will come to an end. But I'm not worried. I'm going to heaven."
to prison and when the inmates asked her what the judge had given her,
judge ain't give me nothing. God gives me one day at a time."
IN GIRL'S DEATH
THE DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES
WISE, WHO DIED IN 1997
workers and their agency seriously violated safety rules and procedures
in a case that led to the death of a 5-year-old in 1997.
Human Services repeatedly dropped the ball and failed to check if the
life was in danger, according to a state review of the death of Charnae
Wise, whose skeleton police found in the basement of a Brewery town
on Sept. 16, 1997.
agency had been
charged with helping the troubled family; Charnae lived with a number
siblings and their mother, Charlene Wise.
said DHS failed to:
Maintain a family
service plan - an important document designed to provide social workers
and the family with a guide of goals, services and schedules.
Assign social workers
so the Wise family could receive uninterrupted service.
workers' meetings with the family and a number of danger signals coming
from the house at 3017 W. Harper St.
assessments that could have shown Charnae was in danger.
June 1997, when
the child was still alive, DHS closed the case without checking to see
whether the child lived in a safe home, the state report said. A string
of reports that could have documented abuse, neglect and other danger
were also ignored.
number of them
were what we would consider to be serious violations,'' said Anne
the regional director of Children, Youth and Families at the state
of Public Welfare in Philadelphia. The department licenses DHS to
hard to label
how egregious this one was because we label all cases involving child
to be very serious,'' welfare department spokeswoman Susan Aspey
Joan Reeves, who has called the tragedy unthinkable, unimaginable,''
to comment on the case.
Patricia Bathurst cited pending litigation'' as the reason for the
There are no current lawsuits against the agency in the matter, she
but there might be in the future.
review found that DHS had taken steps to correct many of the violations
in this case. She said an audit of the agency's work did not suggest
the violations were widespread: ``Our larger sample did not indicate
case was the norm. ''
Wise, 37, was convicted of murdering her daughter and sentenced to up
56 years in prison.
accounts at her trial showed that she abused drugs and alcohol. She
some of her children and neglected them.
long trail of warning
signals preceded Charnae's death: Social workers in 1996 had taken her
to Hahnemann University Hospital, where she weighed in at a
22 pounds. There were reports of abuse and anonymous calls to the local
child-abuse hotline that children in the house were being
death came to light, her older brother was taken to Children's Hospital
of Philadelphia covered with bruises, scars and welts.
is based on an internal investigation into the case conducted by DHS.
DHS investigation has not been made public.
to say whether any agency workers involved in the case had been
1998 state review,
which is a licensing inspection document, shows that the family had
active with DHS from February 1993 to January 1997. In the first months
of 1997, services to the home were to have been delivered by a
social service agency in Germantown.
the Juvenile Justice Center to monitor the family and make sure there
enough food, that the children were clothed and properly housed and
school. Center social workers were to help with household management,
appointments and to offer Wise some parenting skills.
refused to let them in.
need the cooperation
of parents to be successful,'' said Richard Chapman, executive director
of the center. He declined to comment on the specific case without the
permission of DHS. ``We can't push our way in. ''
the family to the city in May 1997, shortly before DHS closed the case.
Chapman said the city had not blamed the center for any
cited seven specific violations DHS committed.
was no family
service plan between June 1994 and July 1995. A required risk
was not conducted in February 1997. (The procedure investigates whether
children in the house are in danger). Agency workers did not maintain
record all activity of a case,'' said Shenberger, the state Department
of Public Welfare official. ``They must record those facts - who was
what went on, like an ongoing narrative. There was no narrative in this
case. It means there was no recording of any activity. ''
agency did not
keep track of reports of abuse, or what social workers had done about
Supervisors failed to oversee the case. There was a period in October
when the family went without a caseworker because no one was assigned.
In June 1997 the case was closed ``without an assessment of progress,
an assessment of whether the children continued to be in a safe home.
there was no closing summary in the case.''
was no documentation
of why it was closed,'' Shenberger said. ``We don't know whether a
worker visited or not. There are no records. ''
comments that were included in the state report, DHS said that it had
found ways to identify cases that supervisors had not seen and that it
had developed a system to ensure that supervisors documented their
review of case records. It planned steps to ensure that inexperienced
staff got experienced oversight.
agency said it
would ensure that the other documented lapses did not recur.
that it had
made "systemic improvements,'' the agency denied responsibility for
On June 17, 2104, while updating pages, I was looking for pictures of
Charnae and I came across this information:
On Harper street, people decided that they were going to make a tribute
to Charnae and a memorial garden was built. At the corner of 30th and
Harper is a tribute in the form of a mural, at the base are ten wooden
boxed where people plant vegetables and flowers. There is a wooden deck
with chairs, all surrounded by a wrought iron fence.
Joyce Hill, who was now 67 years old and was one of four people on the
the committee to memorialize Charnae says that she prefers to live in
the now and not dwell on the past:
I don't like dwelling on it. I'm at an age now where I don't need those
It had been 11 years since Charnae had died at the hands of her mother.
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