Below: Cynteria Phillips spent nine years in the state's protective custody, in and out of foster homes. Her short, turbulent life was punctuated by sexual abuse. At 13, she was murdered.
From Jeb Bush's Florida The continuing saga of crimes against children. "Yet another child remains an unexplained casualty of Florida's foster care system."
Posted on Sat, Aug. 10, 2002
13 turbulent years, and a murder unsolved
BY MEG LAUGHLIN
On the last night of her life, 13-year-old Cynteria Phillips was seen at 10 p.m. at a Miami shelter, sitting on a sofa and sucking her thumb -- just as she had done when she was 4, the first time she was sexually abused.
Nine hours later, she was found naked in an alley, lying in the damp morning grass like a long-legged baby put down to sleep.
But Cynteria was dead.
She had been beaten, sexually assaulted and murdered -- her short, tumultuous life ground down to one violent, agonal moment. And yet, almost two years later, police don't know who killed Cynteria. She remains another unexplained casualty of Florida's foster care system.
The sordid details of her 13 years are chronicled in confidential case files recently obtained by The Herald from the Florida Department of Children & Families.
They show that Cynteria, whose life began as a horror story of sexual and physical abuse and neglect, spent nine years in the state's custody -- going in and out of foster homes, on a steady spiral downward.
As a toddler, she was abused while living with her drug-addicted mother. Abused again after the state gave custody to her father. Raped while walking home from school. Fondled by a picnic volunteer at a state shelter. ''Disturbingly sexual'' by the time she was 9. Having sex for mangoes at 10. Scared and ''suicidal'' at 12, according to reports.
Shortly before her death, a psychologist for the child welfare agency wrote: ''Cynteria should receive intense individual psychotherapy to help her overcome her fears of abandonment and death and issues related to her history of abuse.'' Another therapist noted: ``Cynteria is crying out . . . worries that bad things will happen.''
By then, it was too late. The bad things happened.
LIVING ON THE STREETS
Girl's story is echoed
in files of state agency
On the night of her murder -- Aug. 14, 2000 -- Cynteria was classified as a runaway, one of 125 children living on the streets of Miami at any given time. She had been on the street, off and on, for seven months.
The files at the Department of Children & Families abound with stories like hers -- innocent girls born to addicts and prostitutes, beaten and sexually abused, abandoned by their parents -- fending for themselves in seedy apartments and crack dens, until social workers find them and put them in foster care.
Exposed to sexual abuse as small children, they become sexually aggressive themselves by the time they are teenagers. Many become prostitutes and addicts, some commit suicide, and a few, like Cynteria, are murdered -- their lives lost just as perilously as they began.
''When a little girl gets on the path that Cynteria was on, you hold your breath because you know that in spite of everything you try to do, she is dead set on freedom -- the kind of freedom that can result in death,'' said Jody Forbes, her caseworker at the child welfare agency for three years.
Cynteria was one of eight children born to a crack mother, who was in and out of jail for prostitution and drug possession. When Cynteria was 4, social workers found her and her 3-and 5-year-old siblings sitting in their own feces in an abandoned, roach-infested apartment.
The children were taken from the mother and placed in a shelter. Cynteria had vaginal tears and lacerations, though it was never determined who abused her. Four months later, the state turned Cynteria and one of her sisters over to their natural father. Apparently, according to the child welfare agency's own records, the agency didn't realize that he had recently served time in prison for raping a teenager.
When the father was reported for abusing the girls -- allegedly beating them because he caught his 7- and 8-year-old sons trying to have sex with them -- the girls were removed again and placed in a shelter. Two days later, the agency sent them back.
''The girls were apparently returned to the father's home, but there is no information available as to why or how this occurred,'' agency records say.
The mother then kidnapped them, took them to her aunt's apartment and disappeared. Police found Cynteria and her little sister after a drug gang shot up the apartment, killing Cynteria's older brother.
They were taken to Jackson Memorial Hospital to be examined and were transferred to the Rape Treatment Center, where doctors confirmed sexual abuse. Cynteria, 5, told interviewers at the center: ``I was bleeding below.''
''Unknown perpetrator,'' records of the child welfare agency show.
Back at a shelter, Cynteria became a victim again. Just before her sixth birthday, while playing at a shelter-sponsored picnic, a ''volunteer foster grandfather'' fondled her. Staff members witnessed the incident and said he touched the child between the legs. More troubling was this statement from witnesses: ``She seemed to be enjoying it.''
Sexual contact -- not love and stability -- were becoming the only constant in her life.
''In my experience, it is very common for girls who come into the state system because they were sexually abused to be abused while in the state's care,'' said Carolyn Salisbury, an attorney with the Children and Youth Law Clinic at the University of Miami.
Mostly, it is child on child, but it is also adult on child. Young children see a lot of sex and they imitate it, Salisbury said.
Charges were filed against the 63-year-old volunteer, and Cynteria and her sister went to live with a preacher and his wife in South Miami. Early reports of the Department of Children & Families describe kindergartner Cynteria as ``hyperactive, prone to punching other children.''
But with Junior and Frances Mortimer, Cynteria and her sister seemed to be getting healthier. They went to psychotherapy once a week, to church, shopping malls and restaurants, and traveled with their foster parents to churches in North Florida and Georgia.
But after two years, the Mortimers asked the state agency to find the girls a new home because the couple traveled too frequently.
''We came to regret this,'' Junior Mortimer said.
8-year-old girl's behavior
troubled her foster mother
From the Mortimers' home, the girls went to the Perrine home of Anthony and Laura Starling. But Laura Starling died, and when Anthony remarried, the new wife, Diane, was troubled by Cynteria's sexual behavior.
''Cynteria was disturbingly sexual for an 8-year-old,'' she said.
Reports say that Cynteria was ''acting out sexually,'' pretending to have sex with classmates. From the agency's report: ``Foster mother says she wants Cynteria removed immediately.''
She was just a third-grader -- but already at a pivotal point in her life.
Said psychologist Robert Kelley, who advises the agency on sexually abused children: ``Sexually abused and abandoned by her family when she was a toddler, she then loses her stable foster parents and watches her next foster mother die. Too much loss.''
She was beginning to crave the stimulation of the abuse, he said, and ``to her, abuse became love.''
A few months later, Lorraine Seymore, Cynteria's third foster mother, got a call from Cynteria's school counselor. Cynteria, 9, was having sex on the playground. Later, Cynteria reported that she had been raped by boys while walking home from school.
But Seymore had enough. She turned in her foster care license and the girls left.
This time, the agency placed Cynteria and her sister with Harolean and Cleveland Roberts, who had worked with troubled teenagers for decades.
They took Cynteria, now 10, to school and picked her up every day. They took her and her sister on summer vacations. But Cynteria was still having trouble at school.
Cleveland Roberts heard that Cynteria had been ''having sex for mangoes at recess.'' The couple confronted her about it. Cynteria then called Jody Forbes, who had just become her social worker, and said her foster mother was hitting her.
This would become a pattern -- the first of many similar complaints the child lodged against subsequent foster parents. The agency believed that Harolean Roberts had been tapping Cynteria's palms with a ruler, but did not think this warranted removing her. It was the Roberts couple who wanted Cynteria removed.
''We had an excellent reputation in the community, and we didn't want Cynteria to ruin it,'' Cleveland Roberts said.
Caseworker Forbes was worried, notes in the file show. She had taken a personal interest in the child and spent a lot of time with her.
Cynteria sometimes called Forbes ''Mom.'' Forbes told her: ``You have a mother. I'll be a sister or an aunt.''
''Little girls need a mommy,'' Forbes now says tearfully.
But eventually, as she had with everyone else, Cynteria drifted away from Forbes.
Abuse counselor Kelley: ``Most abused children become so afraid of losing love that they try to get rid of anyone who loves them for fear the person will get rid of them first.''
Tina Fadil, director of the Gladstone Center, a nonprofit residency program in South Miami for sexually abused girls, said that Cynteria's problems were not unusual. ``She desperately needed a residency program when she was little.''
But that's not what happened. The first time a psychotherapist recommended a residency program for Cynteria, she was already 12, and she ran away to avoid going.
Because of long waiting lists for such programs, weekly outpatient therapy is the usual children's agency route.
The girls moved to their eighth home with Annie Kemp. There, Cynteria held Kemp's foster baby and whispered: ``I'm your mama. I'll take care of you like a mama should.''
At Kemp's, Cynteria started running away. Again, she accused Kemp of abusing her, despite her sister's protests that it wasn't true. Kemp wanted Cynteria out.
Meanwhile, the Mortimers, their first foster parents, had approached the agency about getting the girls back. This time, they wanted to adopt them.
It seemed too good to be true. It was.
Frances Mortimer: ``We soon learned Cynteria had become a very different little girl from the one we had known.''
Again, Forbes worried.
The child had circles under her eyes and complained of nightmares about her brother's shooting. She was flirting with a security guard at school, exchanging explicit notes about sex with boys. The caseworker feared that Cynteria would sabotage the adoption.
She was right.
Cynteria accused the Mortimers of beating her, though she later recanted. She called them ''too strict'' and rejected the adoption. She stole and forged their checks, making them out to ''Orlando,'' thinking she could cash them at Walt Disney World. Finally, even the Mortimers asked the agency to remove her.
For the first time, her sister did not go with her.
Said Cynteria's older brother, Brynner Phillips: ``Cynteria was like me. Even though she was real hurt, she kept thinking deep inside our mama would take us back.''
Cynteria moved to her 11th home in eight years -- the home of Wilma Dixon. But like the rest, it didn't last.
She told her caseworker she was being beaten. In a Nov. 4, 1999, report, Forbes wrote: ``Cynteria has reported abuse in three previous foster homes. I don't know who to believe.''
There were more homes. More running away. More seemingly insurmountable woes.
From a Children & Families psychological evaluation: ``Client is suicidal. Attempted to cut herself with scissors.''
''Cutting'' is common among sexually abused girls, who have so separated from their feelings that they are numb. They slice up their arms and legs with anything sharp.
''It is an attempt to feel something,'' counselor Kelley says.
A RUNAWAY ONCE AGAIN
Cynteria leaves home at 13,
and efforts to find her fail
Hearing that she would be ''locked down'' by the agency because she was ''a danger to herself,'' Cynteria, 13, ran away again -- this time for months. The agency issued pickup orders to police, but the child kept moving.
Sometimes she slept with friends, sometimes she stayed in filthy, boarded-up houses. Police think she was exchanging sex with men for food and petty cash. She was in and out of the runaway shelter The Miami Bridge -- showering, eating, getting a night's sleep, then going on the run again.
''Some of these kids you think you could save if you could lock them up, but you can't legally do that,'' said Stephanie Solveni, executive director of The Miami Bridge.
Three months before the child was murdered, a former foster mother saw her at an all-night grocery in northwest Miami. Cynteria wore a dusty, ripped dress with no shoes. Her hair was matted and wild and had deep circles under her eyes.
On the last night of her life, she visited her mother in a barren project in northwest Miami and bathed and dressed up. She left about 8:30 p.m. and took buses to The Miami Bridge to find a friend. About 10:30 p.m., she walked three blocks to a bus stop on Northwest 27th Avenue. She was last seen getting on a northbound bus, alone.
What happened next no one really knows. Miami homicide Detective E. Tamayo followed lead after lead. But nothing moved the case along. He believes she was killed by someone she knew at a location other than where her body was found.
''You'd think somebody out there would give me something to lead me to Cynteria's killer,'' Tamayo said. ``But the phone hasn't rung once in two years.''
Whoever murdered Cynteria removed her clothes and drove to a narrow side street by Edison High School. Going into work at 7 a.m., a secretary saw the naked body and called police. There were no clues, no telltale fibers on her body -- only semen on her leg. She had bruises in and around her mouth, but there were no signs of a sexual struggle -- no cuts on her thighs, no blood or tissue under her fingernails.
Only a little girl placed gently on a bed of grass -- like a child put down to sleep.
© 2001 miamiherald and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.