In June 2013, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services went to the ramshackle apartment where 8-year-old Gizzell Ford was living with her bedridden father, Andre, and his mother, Helen.
Prosecutors now say that Gizzell, nicknamed “Gizzy,” was already suffering extreme abuse by the time DCFS visited. But it appears authorities in 2013 noticed nothing that warranted significant action.
A month later, Gizzell was found beaten and strangled to death at the hands of her grandmother.
Documents obtained by PEOPLE describe the spiral of abuse that led to her killing: The little girl was often tied to a bed for days on end. She was denied food and water — and beaten if she disobeyed — and, at times, she was forced to sit in contorted positions for hours.
If she cried out, her grandmother would stuff a sock or a rag in her mouth.
When Gizzell’s emaciated body was found on July 12, 2013, it was covered with lacerations and bruises. The injuries were so extreme that a 30-year veteran of the Chicago police force cried while testifying about her injuries at Helen’s murder trial.
The trial also included excerpts from the girl’s diary, in which she described her abuse and repeatedly said that she would be “good” so that she would escape punishment.
Helen was convicted of Gizzell’s murder on Thursday afternoon. She faces life in prison when she is sentenced later this month. Gizzell’s father, Andre, died in 2014 while in custody.
Could She Have Been Saved?
From the beginning, it appears Gizzell’s short life was filled with turmoil. PEOPLE has obtained records detailing the contentious custody battle between her father and her mother, Sandra Mercado.
Andre accused Mercado of being homeless and unable to care for Gizzell, which Mercado denied. She alleged that Andre had beaten the girl with a belt (as Andre’s mother later would).
Eight months before her death, a Cook County judge awarded temporary custody of Gizzell to her father. Mercado claims authorities later failed to shield her daughter, despite obvious signs of abuse.
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Mercado filed suit against the Illinois DCFS in July 2014 for not removing Gizzell from the home. “With utter indifference and/or conscious disregard, they failed to take Gizzell Ford into protective custody and out of the home after home visits were made,” the suit states.
The complaint, which was obtained by PEOPLE, describes Gizzell’s death as “torture” that was allegedly the result of “several obvious yet missed opportunities of various state and local agencies whose duty it was to keep her from harm.”
Mercado’s suit names two people as co-defendants, in addition to DCFS: Shirley Contreras, reportedly a former case worker at the agency, and Dr. Norell Rosado.
The nearly 3-year-old case has been on hold while the lawyers waited for evidence connected to the murder trial, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
In her suit, Mercado says that Rosado examined Gizzell on June 17, 2013 — less than a month before she died — at DCFS’s mandate.
During that examination, the lawsuit states, Rosado noticed a “telltale sign of abuse” on the girl’s buttocks: a “healing loop mark.”
Rosado asked Helen about the injuries, and he included his findings in a report that was available to the agency. But, according to the suit, he allegedly did not call the DCFS hotline about Gizzell’s abuse.
Contreras also “had visited the Ford home had opportunity to observe the deplorable condition of the Ford home and abuse mark(s) present on Gizzell,” according to Mercado’s lawsuit. But she “failed to report or act upon” this information, the complaint alleges.
The DCFS does not comment on pending litigation, and Contreras and Rosado did not return PEOPLE’s calls for comment.
Rosado previously told the Chicago Tribune he had always notified DCFS if he noticed signs of abuse or neglect. Contreras no longer works at DCFS, the Tribune reports.
Mercado and her attorneys also did not immediately return a call for comment, but her family has said that the lawsuit is about saving other children from Gizzell’s fate.
“We don’t want any more kids hurt or being killed like my granddaughter,” Juan Mercado, the child’s maternal grandfather, told the Tribune in 2014. “If DCFS had done their job, this wouldn’t have happened and Gizzell would still be alive.”