Charnae Wise
September 19, 1991 - September 1997
Find A Grave Memorial
In Philadelphia on September 16, 1997, the police were called by an 18 year old woman stating that her 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.

Denisha Wise had spoken to her mother earlier on the phone and noted that her mothers voice had sounded very strange and that she was talking in a very low whisper:

Denisha: "Hello?"

Charlene: "I've something to tell you"

Denisha: "What is it?" 

Police entered the house and Sergeant William Kelly was sure he was NOT going to find a body. He based this on the fact that there was no smell to indicated that there was decomposing flesh in the home.

Having entered the house through a window, due to the front door having been locked. William Kelly began his search by looking into closets, behind doors and into the 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
bulb in the socket 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 allowed him to see some trash under the stairs and a broom handle propped against the wall.

Finding nothing, he went up the stairs and unlocked the door and found Denisha Wise waiting for him. William radioed in to the station that the house was clear and went to talk to Denisha:

"We haven't found anything"

Denisha was very upset and told them that her mother told her that Charnae was in the basement. 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 of cardboard was found and a mouse jumped out of that. Under the cardboard, he found a human skull.

Earlier that evening Denisha had visited her mother and raised some questions about where Charnae was. Charlene had been lying to her for months, tell her different stories about how Charnae had been adopted or that she was with relatives in another state. Denisha had been searching everywhere she could think of and always came up with nothing. Finally, Denisha was worried enough to call the human services hotline and tell them that Charnae was missing and she also thought she could be dead.

Denisha and her mother had a strained relationship caused by her mothers use of the drug Crack. The two fought all the time, though neither of them wanted to be the one to end the relationship and they would always make up.

During the phone call that night, Charlene was crying and told her  daughter that she 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 children. Denisha had been the one to tell the social workers where her mother was because she had ben worrying about Charnae. Denisha told her mother that she was going to hang up the phone:

"Neesie, stay on the phone. This is real important."

At that point, Denisha hung up the phone and got ready for bed. When Charlene called back, Denisha 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. Denisha, once again, hung up on her mother. The phone rang again, immediately: 

Denisha:"Mom, just tell me."

Charlene through sobs: "Charnae's dead. " 

Denisha:"Where she at, Mom? "

Charlene: "Wrapped in a sheet, under the stairs."

Denisha slammed the phone down and while screaming, ran out of the house and went to the home of her grandmother who lived near her home. 

The basement was 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, wrapped in a dirty sheet and the body had decomposed completely which explained why there was no smell as William Kelly and entered the home.

Patricia Kauffman peeled back the sheet to look for signs of how this child had died. Wearing 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 Charnae Wise was found. The medical examiners office technicians wrapped the skeleton in a clean sheet and placed it in a body bag. At the office of the medical examiner, it was confirmed that the child was a girl, around the age of five. 

It was determined that the child had starved to death, her muscles had wasted away, she probably developed diarrhea which would have made the weight loss quicker. She would eventually have slipped into an unconscious state and her immune system would have failed her. Death could have taken days or months and it would have been a very painful way to die. In the autopsy report Patricia Kauffman listed the death as homicide by unspecified means. Decomposition had been estimated to have taken about two weeks which meant that Charnae had died between July 16 and September 2.

Charlene was driven to Philadelphia by homicide detectives who would talk to her as they were driving:

"After we finish questioning you, how are you going to get back to Norristown? " 

Charlene was excited 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 thinking about a crack pipe and some crack rocks.

She fantasized about picking up her $300 and getting high. She imagined the sense of utter well-being as the drug washed over her. At the Police Administration building, when officers began to question her, she focused on just one thing: matches, pipe and some rocks. Charlene waived her right to remain silent, her right to a lawyer and
she gave them her statement, signing everything they asked her to.

Detectives: "Will you tell us how the remains of your daughter 
Charnae got in the basement?"

Charlene: "I put her there,"

Detectives: "Was she dead or alive when you put her, Charnae,
in the basement?"

Charlene: "She was alive. "

Detectives: "Tell us how your daughter Charnae got 
into the basement and what happened to her. "

Charlene then gave them an account of her own drug abuse and when she finished, they charged her with the murder of Charnae and took her to a cell.

Social workers took Donte Wise, Charlene's seven year old son to the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Donte had lacerations and bruises on his body that totaled 18. Donte would not make eye contact with anyone and he seemed withdrawn. The Pediatrician, Angelo Giardino had seem these injuries on many children over the years. He was able to recognize marks on Donte's body that showed he had been hit with a rope and a hairbrush and also had been tied up.

To Angelo Giardino, 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 backward on itself. The ligature marks on the boy's arms indicated he had been tied up. There were pinpoint scars on his face: He had been struck with a hairbrush. 

Two 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 Charlene was arrested and stuck in a cell for the murder of Charnae, Tom Cairns led a candlelight prayer vigil.

Hundreds of people 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 at Charlene, he wondered if hers had been a case of taking out her anger on 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 his help.

Charlene could see a tiny part of the Delaware River from a tiny window in her cell, #49 at the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center. She paced back and forth in her cell until she felt like she was going to explode. She even punched the walls while other inmates would scream "Get me outta here". Charlene said she missed her children and it was obvious that she missed her drugs.

Two weeks later she was told that she had a visitor. She didn't think it could be Denisha after all that happened. Charlene was strip searched and taken to a meeting room where a sign read "No kissing". When the door opened, two white strangers came into the room and Charlene didn't think they were there to see her. It turned out to be two members of the church in her neighborhood, one of which was Tom Cairns:

Charlene: "Why did you come?" 

Tom Cairns: "God sent me. Do you need a friend?"

"Charlene: "Yes." 

Tom Cairns: ""Do you want to be forgiven?" 

"Charlene: "Yes."

"Tom Cairns: "Do you want to be saved?"

Charlene: "A thousand times, yes. 

Tom Cairns: ""Whatever happened, God loves you. 
He wants to help you, if you let him."

Tom Cairns spoke to Charlene about his own life experiences and how had come to the church. 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 different. Tom Cairns and his church colleague had begun to pray, out loud, outside the prison doors. 

"Lord, prepare our hearts and minds to minister to Charlene. Make us good listeners. 
Help us be compassionate, yet honest. " 

Tom would visit Charlene every two weeks. They were always in a room divided by a waist high partition while guards watched them. Though she was younger than Tom, Charlene felt older and wondered how he would understand all that she had done. She felt ashamed at times when she was around him. She made a decision to hide certain things from him.

Charlene told him about her own childhood hardships and how no one at home had said "I love you" or hugged each other. She spoke of not having any friends in school 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 pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. At the age of 16, Charlene was pregnant with Denisha and at 17 she was pregnant again.

By this time, she moved in with a 40 year old man and they had three children. The man taught 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, the sound was extremely loud.

The more Tom Cairns would get to know Charlene, the more he came to believe she was a lost soul.

During her second pregnancy, she moved in with another man. He was 40. They had three children. 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 Charnae.

The more Mr. Cairns got to know Charlene, the more she seemed to him like a lost soul. Charlene 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 affection and positive attention from other inmates.

Tom Cairns tried to get Charlene to see that without being honest she was not going to be forgiven. He wanted to hear her say the words "I'm Charlene Wise. I killed 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 would cause her to become angry and she cause an outburst from her:

Charlene: "I did not murder my child."

Tom Cairns: "But what you did do was very bad. "

Upon hearing this, Charlene would simply change the subject.

Two months in prison brought about a claim from Charlene:

"I gave my life to Christ and asked him to forgive my sins," 

Tom Cairns gave her a hug and they prayed together. He also told her to read the Bible every day. Charlene had questions she wanted to ask and she did. One of the questions was if she had to die in order to be forgiven. Tom told her no, that father 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 was from a the Sermon on the Mount:

"You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."

When 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 things got bad, she would read her Bible or listen to Christian radio stations. During the 18 months in jail while waiting for her trial to begin, Charlene and Denisha made up and she was the only visitor Charlene had besides Tom Cairns.

Charlene was offered a deal, if she would plead guilty to charges that were related to the death 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 intended 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

"It's not as bad as you think, I'll be home. " 

At trial, Donte told the people in the courtroom that he had gone to the basement and felt that Charnae's heart had become still. District Attorney Yvonne Ruiz had Detective Lawrence McGuffin read from the confession of Charlene, in court. He made it clear that it was NOT important to understand WHY Charlene 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 Lawyer said that she had not intended to kill charnae.

Charlene was convicted 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 several 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 Cairns and at last he had what he wanted, a confession:

"I'm sorry my daughter's life had to be taken for this. She's in a better place than here on Earth. 
She's in heaven; she's one of God's little angels." 

Tom Cairns replied to her:

"It used to be that your body was free and your heart was in prison," he told her. Now 
your heart is free. It's much better this way. " 

Mr. Cairns sent a letter to the judge before Charlene was sentenced. Here is part of what he said:

"Only God can be completely certain about a person's sincerity and depth of faith, but after 
21 years of Christian ministry I'm as sure as I can be that her faith and conversion are genuine."

Another letter came 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 psychiatrist said:

"Charlene's prognosis for significant change or progress was guarded."

Charlene was sentenced in May, to 28 to 56 years by Judge Lineberger. The Judge said that the sentence was set due to the nature of the crimes she had committed.

Standing in her cell, looking  out the window Charlene told her cellmate she was not worried:

"Maybe the world will come to an end. But I'm not worried. I'm going to heaven."

The cellmate replied:

"Don't be so sure," 

Charlene was sent to prison and when the inmates asked her what the judge had given her, she said:

 "The judge ain't give me nothing. God gives me one day at a time."



Philadelphia social 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. 

The Department of Human Services repeatedly dropped the ball and failed to check if the child's 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 rowhouse on Sept. 16, 1997. 

The agency had been charged with helping the troubled family; Charnae lived with a number of siblings and their mother, Charlene Wise. 

The state report 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. 

* Document social workers' meetings with the family and a number of danger signals coming from the house at 3017 W. Harper St. 

* Conduct crucial assessments that could have shown Charnae was in danger. 

In 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 signs were also ignored. 

``A number of them were what we would consider to be serious violations,'' said Anne Shenberger, the regional director of Children, Youth and Families at the state Department of Public Welfare in Philadelphia. The department licenses DHS to provide family services. 

``It's hard to label how egregious this one was because we label all cases involving child abuse to be very serious,'' welfare department spokeswoman Susan Aspey said. 

DHS commissioner Joan Reeves, who has called the tragedy unthinkable, unimaginable,'' declined to comment on the case. 

Agency spokeswoman Patricia Bathurst cited pending litigation'' as the reason for the silence. There are no current lawsuits against the agency in the matter, she said, but there might be in the future. 

Shenberger said the 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 that the violations were widespread: ``Our larger sample did not indicate this case was the norm. ''

Last month, Charlene Wise, 37, was convicted of murdering her daughter and sentenced to up to 56 years in prison. 

Police reports and accounts at her trial showed that she abused drugs and alcohol. She beat some of her children and neglected them. 

A 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 malnourished 22 pounds. There were reports of abuse and anonymous calls to the local child-abuse hotline that children in the house were being ill-treated. 

Even as Charnae's death came to light, her older brother was taken to Children's Hospital of Philadelphia covered with bruises, scars and welts. 

The state review is based on an internal investigation into the case conducted by DHS. The DHS investigation has not been made public. 

Bathurst declined to say whether any agency workers involved in the case had been disciplined. 

The 1998 state review, which is a licensing inspection document, shows that the family had been 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 nonprofit social service agency in Germantown. 

DHS contracted with the Juvenile Justice Center to monitor the family and make sure there was enough food, that the children were clothed and properly housed and attended school. Center social workers were to help with household management, doctors' appointments and to offer Wise some parenting skills. 

The single mother refused to let them in. 

``We 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 center referred 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 wrongdoing. 

The state review cited seven specific violations DHS committed. 

There was no family service plan between June 1994 and July 1995. A required risk assessment was not conducted in February 1997. (The procedure investigates whether children in the house are in danger). Agency workers did not maintain records. 

``The agency must record all activity of a case,'' said Shenberger, the state Department of Public Welfare official. ``They must record those facts - who was present, what went on, like an ongoing narrative. There was no narrative in this case. It means there was no recording of any activity. ''

The agency did not keep track of reports of abuse, or what social workers had done about them. Supervisors failed to oversee the case. There was a period in October 1996 when the family went without a caseworker because no one was assigned. In June 1997 the case was closed ``without an assessment of progress, or an assessment of whether the children continued to be in a safe home. Additionally, there was no closing summary in the case.'' 

``There was no documentation of why it was closed,'' Shenberger said. ``We don't know whether a social worker visited or not. There are no records. ''

In 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.

The agency said it would ensure that the other documented lapses did not recur. 

Saying that it had made "systemic improvements,'' the agency denied responsibility for Charnae's death.


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 nightmares"

It had been 11 years since Charnae had died at the hands of her mother.

Death occurred in the state of Philadelphia

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