NEW YORK – Friends, family and strangers said a tearful goodbye to a 7-year-old girl allegedly beaten to death by an abusive stepfather, with a priest assuring that the young victim was now "beyond the touch of evil."
The sounds of weeping filled St. Mary Church as the body of Nixzmary Brown lay inside a coffin before an altar still decorated with Christmas poinsettias.
"We have a reminder by the death of this child that the violence continues," said the Rev. Robert O'Neil, the church pastor. "She is a witness for us."
Nixzmary's stepfather, Cesar Rodriguez, allegedly beat the 7-year-old on Jan. 10 for taking a yogurt from the family's refrigerator.
According to Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes, Rodriguez banished the girl to a rodent-infested room with a litter box filled with feces, a wooden chair tied to a radiator and dirty mattresses, then later beat her and dunked her head into a bathtub. Nixzmary was dead the next morning.
Rodriguez and the girl's mother, Nixzaliz Santiago, were indicted Tuesday on charges of second-degree murder, child endangerment and assault. The mother allegedly ignored her daughter's cries for help.
The family had been monitored by the city's Administration for Children's Services, and the agency launched a review of thousands of other cases after Nixzmary's death.
In Nixzmary's case, there had been warning signs, but ACS officials said the family was uncooperative. School employees last year reported the girl had been absent for weeks, but caseworkers found no conclusive evidence of abuse, authorities said. Neighbors also said they had noticed unexplained injuries.
Lucy Rivera, 60, had never met Nixzmary or her family but felt obliged to attend the service in her Manhattan neighborhood. Rivera blamed the little girl's mother for failing to protect the child.
"The first person who should have defended her was the mother," she said. "She was the first person who failed her."
O'Neil told the mourners that the little girl had moved on to a better place: "Nixzmary is now surrounded by love, beyond the touch of evil."