Sentencing in Toddler’s Death Highlights Importance of Needs-Based Services for Families
Mariah Craven is the director of communications and marketing at Washington Area Women’s Foundation, the only donor-supported, public foundation solely focused on improving the lives of women and girls in the Washington metro area. Prior to working in the nonprofit field, Mariah was a broadcast journalist. She writes and makes short films about a variety of topics ranging from entertainment to poverty and civil rights to social media. You can find her on Twitter at: @Mariah_Craven.
On the morning of May 31st, Biannela Susana will find out how much more time she’ll spend in prison in connection with the death of her youngest son. Whether the judge sentences her to the maximum 30 years or not, it’s hard to imagine that any punishment will top the nightmare that her life has been so far. In 2011, Biannela and her then 12-year-old son Cristian were charged in the death of two-year-old David.
You may already be familiar with Biannela and Cristian’s story. When they were first arrested, some media outlets labeled Biannela the “worst mom in the world.” Cristian became the youngest person in Florida history to be charged as an adult with first degree murder. But the sensational details of this case oversimplify and obfuscate a tragedy that was years in the making. And while Biannela and Cristian will be punished for it, the blame does not lie solely on their shoulders.
I learned the details of Biannela’s case earlier this year at a symposium held by the Georgetown Journal on Poverty & Law. One thing that stood out to me about the story was this: whether they were intentional or not, Biannela’s cries for help began early and they were loud. They went unanswered by a system that is overburdened and not set up to focus on individual need.
According to a developmental assessment performed by a psychologist after Cristian’s arrest, Biannela immigrated to Miami from the Dominican Republic when she was eight. At the symposium, I learned that her first encounter with police was shortly after that. They were called when no one picked her up from school one day. If they’d investigated why, they might have discovered that Biannela’s drug-addicted mother was neglecting her.
At 11, Biannela was raped by an acquaintance of her family’s and she gave birth to Cristian when she was 12. Biannela left school and she and Cristian lived with her mother until the night two-year-old Cristian was discovered wandering the streets at 4 a.m. His grandmother was found in a nearby motel room and arrested on neglect and drug charges. Cristian was eventually placed in a foster home and, according to Lawanda Ravoira, who spoke at the abovementioned symposium, Biannela managed to get herself placed into the same foster home. She was 16.
After their foster mother died of a heart attack, they were moved into another foster home. By the time he was five, Cristian showed signs of sexual abuse and the courts ordered that he undergo a mental health evaluation. There’s no record of that happening or any other follow-up. When she was 18, Biannela married Luis Galarraga and had two more children. Galarraga was an abusive man who taunted Cristian when they discovered that the eight-year-old was being molested by a cousin. Cristian was sent to live in the Dominican Republic for a year. By the time he returned, Biannela had had another child and Galarraga’s violence hadn’t ceased. He reportedly threatened Cristian with a gun and beat him with a baseball bat. Cristian went to school covered with bruises for weeks before he was finally taken to a hospital with a serious eye injury and broken rib.
When Cristian told authorities that his stepfather had been beating him, Biannela called Galarraga to inform him that police were on the way to their home to make an arrest. Before they arrived, Galarraga shot and killed himself in front of Biannela’s other children. Biannela requested counseling for her family – to aid her children who had witnessed their father’s suicide and for Cristian, who would later express confused feelings of guilt and relief related to Galarraga’s death.
“Abuse takes a toll on your self-esteem. I know from experience,” Biannela told the doctor who assessed Cristian. “I wanted him to have therapy. He was on the waiting list.”
Hoping for a fresh start, Biannela eventually moved her family to Jacksonville, FL to be near a stepsister, her only other relative in the U.S. There were more signs of trouble in January of 2011, when Cristian broke David’s leg while wrestling with him when the two were home alone. Biannela didn’t get immediate medical attention for David and then lied and said he’d fallen off the monkey bars at a playground while she watched the children from an apartment window.
A few months later, Biannela was running an errand when she got a call from Cristian. He told her that David had accidentally fallen and hit his head. When she got home, David was unresponsive. She spent the rest of the day holding ice on his head, texting friends to ask what she should do, and searching the internet for what to do about “unconsciousness.” About eight hours passed before she took David to the hospital. He never regained consciousness and later died.
Initially, Cristian claimed that David accidentally fell into a book case, but the extensive injuries indicated that David had been hit repeatedly. Cristian was arrested and charged with first degree murder and Biannela was charged with neglect because she waited so long to get help and had left the children alone. This video of a bewildered, baby-faced Cristian being handcuffed is one of the most heart-wrenching things I’ve seen.
At first, Biannela and Cristian were detained on different floors of the same jail, and they tried to look out for one another. Cristian asked visitors to give his extra lotion to his mother. Biannela drew attention to the fact that Cristian was kept in what amounted to solitary confinement. He was eventually moved to a juvenile facility.
Since then, both Cristian and Biannela have pleaded guilty to the charges leveled at them. Cristian was sentenced to remain incarcerated at a juvenile facility until his 19th birthday. After that, he’ll be on probation for eight years and is barred from seeing his siblings unless they seek him out. Biannela faces 13 to 30 years when she’s sentenced on the 31st.
I catalogued this series of events not to add to the sensationalism around this story, but to highlight the many places where someone could have stepped in to help a family caught up in multiple cycles of abuse, neglect, and a dearth of resources. Biannela herself called the situation “complicated,” telling The Florida Times-Union, “…there’s so many parts that played a part in that for that event to happen.”
How could so many red flags have been ignored? Where were the support, counseling and intervention on behalf the pregnant 11-year-old? The preteen mother who dropped out of school? The 15-year-old living in filth with her neglectful mother and toddler? The teenager and five-year-old who were in a foster home where there appeared to be abuse going on? The young woman with three children and a violent husband? Why were the children who were victims of abuse and witnesses to suicide put on a waitlist for therapy? Where were the home visits for the two-year-old who supposedly climbed up the monkey bars and fell off? Where were Biannela’s friends and family members? And how many times do social services departments put a band-aid on the problem before effectively addressing it?
Our support systems and safety nets have far too many holes in them and Biannela and Cristian’s story is the result. Their case is extreme and unique in many ways, but that very fact highlights why it’s so important to provide services that are tailored to each family’s needs. It’s why teachers, police, nurses, counselors and caseworkers should be given the resources they need to work together and develop a full picture of a family’s circumstances. And it’s a reminder that just because a girl can give birth, doesn’t mean that she’s fully prepared to be a mother, particularly when her relationships with adults have been based on abuse and neglect. Counseling, training, and a good support system would have helped her navigate the difficult waters of being a young parent.
When Biannela is sentenced on the 31st, I hope that we remember that she didn’t get there alone. There were too many people around who chipped away at her and her family, and not nearly enough to give her the help she needed. The pain and loss she’s experienced are unimaginable. She has buried one child in whose death she was culpable and was listed as a witness against another. Her middle children were put up for adoption. If she receives the maximum sentence, her children will be in their 30s and 40s when Biannela is released from prison.
We, as her community, should feel a profound sense of loss, too. Families are the building blocks of our society and one has been destroyed. We’ve lost a child and all the hope and potential that there is in every young life. Another child will spend his formative years incarcerated. And a young woman will sit in prison instead of contributing to society.
Biannela and Cristian’s story has forced on all of us some terrible truths: what a child’s wrists look like in handcuffs; the devastating yield of years of abuse; the knowledge that some of this may have been prevented if a teacher or police officer had looked out for an eight-year-old Biannela; and what happens when we respond to cries for help far too late.
The opinions expressed here are my personal opinions. Content published here is not read or approved by my employer and does not necessarily represent the views or opinions of my employer.
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