PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A homeless mother-of-six charged with murder in her baby’s starvation death at a Philadelphia shelter has become “a scapegoat” for the alleged failings of social workers, doctors and city officials, a defense lawyer told jurors Thursday.
Tanya Williams, 34, is charged in the death of two-month-old twin Quasir Alexander. He died Dec. 23, 2010, weighing just over four pounds.
In opening statements, lawyer Greg Pagano said a social worker checked on the boy 36 hours before he died, and declared him safe and well. The social worker even discharged Williams from a city-funded parenting program.
“This case was destined for failure from the beginning,” said Pagano, who accused a hospital of releasing the three-day-old twins to their mother’s care for financial reasons. “She’s now being made a scapegoat for all the social workers, all the doctors, who failed to do what they were supposed to do for Ms. Williams and her family.”
Assistant District Attorney Peter Lim said Quasir had no fat or muscle left when he died, and had lost a half-pound since his birth, when he had weighed four pounds, 12 ounces. Paramedics called to the shelter had found the cold, lifeless baby on a bed, alone, wearing only a diaper.
“He lay there, literally skin on bones,” Lim said. “Standing there idly in that room was his mother. No affect, no emotion, no nothing.”
The family of seven lived in a small room at a Travelers Aid shelter, where Williams had access to formula, authorities have said. Quasir’s twin, who was born nearly a pound heavier, was near death from malnutrition and dehydration, Lim said.
When Quasir’s brother arrived at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, he quickly sucked down 10 ounces of formula, but threw it up before a nutritionist ordered more gradual feedings, Lim told jurors.
Pagano said the twins were born premature, but Lim said it’s not clear since Williams had no prenatal care.
Williams had once lived with her mother, but left because the mother did not approve of Williams’ boyfriend, the father of her four youngest children, Pagano said. Williams then went to live with a church friend, but was thrown out after a dispute about religion.
Left to roam the streets with her four children, and pregnant with the twins, she slept one night in the lobby of the city’s Department of Human Services in search of help, Pagano said.
She ended up at a shelter run by Travelers Aid Family Services of Philadelphia in September, and gave birth Oct. 22. The twins were sent home on Oct. 25, along with information about food stamps and a car seat program, and advice on their feeding and sleeping needs.
But Pagano questioned how much Williams understood, given what he called her IQ of 65.
Common Pleas Judge M. Teresa Sarmina, though, questioned the relevance of that finding, given Williams’ apparently cogent statements to police about her hopes and dreams, her parenting efforts and her enjoyment of a job she once held at a day care center.
“At this moment, I don’t understand why IQ is relevant,” Sarmina said in a pretrial hearing earlier Thursday.
Williams has been in prison for two years, and her children have been removed from her custody.
Lutheran Children and Family Service, which runs the shelter, suspended two case workers after Quasir’s death, but no one else has faced criminal charges.
The case has echoes of the 2006 starvation death of another child under the city’s watch, a 14-year-old disabled teen named Danieal Kelly. Her family’s case workers skipped home visits altogether, while the owner of a contract firm hired to coordinate services for Danieal and her eight siblings forged documents after she died. They are serving long prison terms for defrauding the city.
The girl’s mother, Andrea Kelley, is serving 20 to 40 years for third-degree murder.