Gizzell Ford Abuse Case Highlights Desperate Need For Custody Reform

By Jeffery M. Leving

A recent article in the Chicago Tribune reported on the tragic death of Gizzell Ford, whose grandmother and father are now charged with murder.  The Tribune found that the little girl’s “safety net” failed, with multiple signs of trouble missed by the Department of Children and Family Services, her doctors, and child advocacy workers including police and prosecutors.

This article underscores our desperate need for custody reform to protect every child.

The facts are gruesome: 8 year-old Gizzell Ford was found dead at the home of her father and her grandmother. The girl reportedly had cuts on her face, ears, and lips, as well as puncture wounds, and blunt trauma to the head. Paramedics also found circular burns similar to a cigarette burn. Maggots hatched in one of her head wounds and spread to the front of her scalp. Authorities recovered a pole and cables which had blood on them from the home. The paternal grandmother – Helen Ford – and her son – Andre Ford- are now accused of strangling the 8 year-old girl to death with prosecutors seeking an extended prison sentence based on a death “involving the infliction of torture.”

This tragic ending followed a long, drawn-out custody battle waged by Gizzell’s parents.  Gizzell’s mother Sandra Mercado, had custody of the girl, but after hearing that Mercado was allegedly homeless and unstable, Ford filed an emergency petition seeking custody of Gizzell.  Thus, just eight months before her death, Gizzell was placed in the home of Helen and Andre Ford, both of whom had felony criminal backgrounds.  The judge – the eighth in less than three years in this case – based his custody recommendation on the advice of a mediation expert.  The mediation expert noted that the home was “safe and comfortable.”   How can this be? What investigation did the “mediator” take to determine the child would be safe?  This is the same home where the child was found dead and tortured only months later.

Further as reported in the Tribune article, “DCFS officials weren’t consulted and therefore, did not provide family histories to the judge…It’s unclear what [the judge] knew about the criminal backgrounds of Helen and Andre Ford.”   It’s important to note that neither state law nor court procedures require the judge to involve outside agencies.  Meaningful custody reforms must address this gaping hole in the “safety net” we rely on to protect vulnerable children.

Several others involved in this case relied upon to recognize the warning signs of abuse and protect our children may have missed the signs, or worse – – failed to follow through.  The child abuse doctor who examined Gizzell just weeks before her death didn’t notify DCSF about possible sexual trauma. Police and prosecutors part of a child advocacy center involved in this case allegedly failed to review the doctor’s report.

Reports from family members reveal their suspicions of abuse.  Gizzell’s mother was granted supervised visits, but when she did see her daughter she said Gizzell always had long-sleeved shirts on. The mother also said sometimes the grandmother would come up with excuses to cancel their visits. The young girl’s uncle stated when family members would call to check on her, the grandmother would tell them Gizzell was in the shower, on punishment or she simply just couldn’t talk. It was also reported the girl only weighed 30 pounds at the time of her death. Was there ever a “well-being check” by the police? The Department of Children and Family Services said they were never even notified. This sounds unbelievable.

So how did something like this happen? How did such a tragedy befall an innocent 8 year-old little girl? The hard fact is that Gizzell Ford was not in good hands as the court likely assumed she would be.

This case must be critically analyzed from beginning to end to ensure that such a tragedy never happens again. A problem cannot be solved unless we know what it is. Failure is not an option for the future of children caught in the middle of custody cases.

While it is not uncommon for grandmothers to assume responsibility for their grandchildren and to be loving and caring providers, something went tragically wrong here. Had the grandmother’s background been checked thoroughly, and did she submit to a psychological evaluation before becoming the primary caregiver? The questions are many; the answers are few.

This tragedy underscores the need for greater judicial resources to help courts deal with the complex family issues and the fact finding needed to ensure all our children remain safe before, during and after a custody determination is made by the court. Mandatory background checks and mental health evaluations should be required for all non-parents before they are given the right to care for children.

The child is the most important person in a custody case, as well as the most vulnerable. A family member may step up to the task, but it doesn’t mean they are capable of being responsible and providing a child with the proper care. Making sure all of the necessary steps are taken to assure each child is in good hands should be the court’s top priority. Until adequate resources and qualified personnel are available to the court in every case, children will continue to be at risk of being placed with abusive caretakers. Gizzell should not be forgotten, and the system needs to work for every child.