February 11, 1989
Brooklyn, New York City, New York, USA
|Died||November 22, 1995
Manhattan, New York City, New York, USA
Cause of death
|Brain hemorrhage, multiple trauma, child abuse|
|Cypress Hills Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York|
|Ethnicity||Cuban American, Puerto Rican American|
|Parents||Gustavo Izquierdo (father)
Awilda Lopez (mother)
Elisa Izquierdo (February 11, 1989 – November 22, 1995) was a six-year-old Puerto Rican–Cuban-American girl who was beaten to death by her mother Awilda Lopez, a New York City drug addict, in 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 and then national headlines when it became clear that New York City's Child Welfare System (now the Administration for Children's Services) missed numerous opportunities to intervene with her family and to save her life. These failures to protect Elisa subsequently became the inspiration for Elisa's Law, a major restructuring of the New York child welfare increasing accountability of parties involved in child welfare and reducing areas of confidentiality relating to public disclosure in cases of this nature. Elisa's Law was implemented in February, 1996.
Her life story became the subject numerous media articles, from local tabloids such as the New York Daily News and The New York Post to the cover of Time Magazine. Her story was featured on an August 1996 episode of Dateline NBC. Elisa was once referred to as a modern-day Cinderella because she had been under the protection of a loving father and had befriended Prince Michael of Greece through her school before being placed into the 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, whereas her mother, Awilda, was a Puerto Rican raised in Brooklyn. The pair had met at a 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 (with whom she had had two children) due to failure to pay rent — in part caused by her usage of narcotics. The two began a temporary relationship, although reportedly, this ended when Gustavo discovered Awilda – at the time pregnant with Elisa – was using crack cocaine. Concern by her own family as to her usage of drugs resulted in Awilda losing custody of her two eldest children, Rubencino and Kasey, to her own family in 1988.
When Elisa was born, she was addicted to crack cocaine. As a result of her mother's addiction, 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; and organizing celebrations for her first birthdays and baptism. One family friend later related: "She (Elisa) was his life. He would always say she was his princess."
In 1990, Gustav enrolled his daughter in preschool. Through his own contacts with an aide of this school, Prince Michael of Greece encountered Elisa and offered to pay for her tuition until 12th grade at the Brooklyn Friends School.
Partial custodial rights of mother
In November 1991, Awilda Lopez, having regained custody of her two eldest children, secured the right to obtain unsupervised visitation rights to Elisa: this ruling awarded her custody of the child every second weekend. The previous year, a social worker had signed an affidavit stating that Awilda had successfully beaten her addiction, had secured permanent accommodation and had remarried.
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, adding that she had no desire to see her (her mother) again. Her father also noted that Elisa had begun bedwetting in addition to losing control of her bowels. Another family acquaintance noted that Elisa would always vomit upon her return from these visits to her mother and refused to enter bathrooms.
Both Gustavo Izquierdo and Elisa's teachers did inform authorities of the abuse Elisa was enduring: the 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.
Death of father
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 for May 26, 1994. However, Gustavo was admitted to hospital with respiratory complications (diagnosed as lung cancer), and died on May 26: the same date he had planned to travel to Cuba with his daughter.
Full custodial awarding to mother
Upon Gustavo's death, Awilda applied for full, permanent custody of Elisa and was initially granted temporary custody of the child. Upon hearing the initial awarding of 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 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 the application by Gustavo's cousin to obtain permanent custody of Elisa.
Lacking sufficient funding to pay legal fees, Elsa Canizares attended these court hearing without 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, the legal representatives for Awilda testified as to her valiant efforts to refrain from relapsing into drug use and criticized her (Canizares) for having "the nerve" to try and take Elisa from her biological mother, to which Elsa Canizares replied her nerve was borne out of fear of Elisa being placed with her mother.
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 moved her daughter from the school where she had attended and enrolled her in a local public school, where Elisa was observed to be withdrawn and uncommunicative. The principal of the school also noted that Elisa bore bruises and walked with apparent difficulty. The school's concerns regarding abuse of Elisa were reported to the Manhattan Child Welfare Authorities (CWA). Reportedly, the CWA replied to the school that their concerns were "not reportable" due to a lack of evidence of abuse. In response to the school's reporting to the CWA and a subsequent visit by staff at the school regarding suspected abuse of her daughter, Awilda — by this time known to have reverted to regular crack cocaine use — withdrew Elisa from the school.
Reportedly, despite the fact that in addition to having by this time borne 5 other children (three of whom had been born after Elisa), Awilda targeted Elisa for almost all of the physical and mental 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 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.
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 CWA, who rebuffed his requests to visit the Lopez residence.
Other indignities and abuse inflicted by Awilda upon her daughter (some of which were witnessed by Elisa's siblings) included repeated punching; forcing the child to eat her own feces; mopping the floor with Elisa's hair; inflicting burns upon the child's head, face and body and sexually violating her with a hairbrush. Awilda's partner, Carlos Lopez (himself also a regular user of drugs) is also known to have physically abused Elisa.
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 to report that Elisa was "like retarded on the bed", adding Elisa would not eat or drink. The following morning, Awilda contacted a neighbor, whom she invited to view Elisa's lifeless body. This neighbor, upon being unable to locate signs of life, called police and an ambulance.
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, and her genitalia also bore evidence of trauma. 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. Her funeral was attended by an estimated 300 mourners including relatives, neighbors, politicians and members of the public touched by the case.
On June 25, 1996, Awilda Lopez pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in relation to the death of Elisa. The following month, she was sentenced to a term of 15 years to life imprisonment. Although eligible for parole, as of 2014, Awilda Lopez has been denied release.
In response to the death of Elisa Izquierdo, the then-Mayor of New York City, Rudolph Giuliani, instigated a review of the child welfare system. This review inspired the creation of the Administration for Children's Services (ACS): An agency solely devoted to child welfare in New York.
On February 12, 1996, Governor George Pataki signed Elisa's Law into legislation. 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. Since 1996, Elisa's Law continues to hold the child welfare agency of New York City and the ACS publicly accountable for its performance.
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