When abused children die, they never get a chance to tell their stories. We get information from the autopsy and police reports. We hear from neighbors and relatives. But we don't know what their last hours were like. We don't know what went on inside their heads.
What were Rita Fisher's last thoughts before she died on June 25? Was she frightened or was she relieved to leave behind such a wretched existence?
The picture of her death that emerges from court records and law enforcement officials is truly horrible. The medical examiner's report said Rita, a 9-year-old third-grader, weighed just 47 pounds and had several cracked ribs as well as well as marks indicating that her wrists and ankles had been bound.
Neighbors described Rita as dirty, pale and emaciated. They said Rita, who seemed frightened when adults spoke to her, had not been seen outside for weeks.
"She looked like a concentration-camp victim," said Carol Keen, a neighbor, adding that she complained twice to Baltimore County social services officials. "I don't understand why this child was not taken away from that house sooner. There was no reason for her to die."
Baltimore County police charged Rita's mother, Mary Elizabeth Fisher-Utley, 49, and Frank Eugene Scarpola Jr., 21, with first-degree murder in connection with Rita's death.
Scarpola and Fisher-Utley have been indicted on separate charges -- ranging from rape to child abuse -- in connection with Rita's 15-year-old sister.
As I read the articles of the alleged abuse of Rita and her sister, it sparked flashbacks in my mind. I can talk about abuse first-hand. I've experienced it. I'm 19 years old, and during my life I've had seven social workers, and I've lived in eight foster homes. Today, I'm a sophomore at the Johns Hopkins University and, unlike Rita, I lived to tell my story.
For most of the past two years of Rita's life, county social workers had been investigating her home because of reports of abuse, officials have said. The latest investigation lasted about a month and ended in February. A few months later, Rita was dead.
Clearly, Rita's death put social services officials on the defense. Maureen Robinson, a spokeswoman for the county social services agency, declined to discuss the case, citing the family's privacy.
"In the public's eyes, we are either the children snatchers who take kids from perfectly normal homes, or it's our fault and we do too little too late," Robinson said.
My experience tells me that social workers simply don't understand what life is like for abused children. Some social workers don't recognize abuse when they see it, and the system moves too slowly to prevent needless deaths.
I became a ward of the state after my mother gave me up. She later committed suicide. I grew up in another state where I was shuttled back and forth between foster homes, youth shelters and group homes. Today, as an adult I still carry the physical and mental scars of the abuse I suffered.
There were nights when I could not sleep because the sheets would cling to open wounds on my skin. At school I had to sit down in my seat slowly and couldn't rest my back against my chair. This is life for an abused child. You never know when you're going to get hit or how long a beating is going to last. You think that everyone is allowed to hit you. You constantly watch your back. You never talk back. You never say what you don't like. You're not allowed to cry.
If you're asked, "Are you ugly or stupid?", you simply answer, "Yes." You don't hug or kiss your abuser because you don't know if he/she will squeeze you too tight or decide to bite you.
But the most important thing is to protect your head and heart at all times and pretend you're in another world.
In my case as in Rita Fisher's, neighbors had called social services and complained. My teachers often asked how I got black eyes and bruises and I had to tell them a story. Eventually, social services officials intervened. There was an investigation, but no one was arrested.
In fact, social services officials removed me from one abusive household for a while but later sent me back. I'm still trying to figure out why they returned me to the same people who'd been abusing me.
Several years, and three psychiatric evaluations later, they permanently removed me from that home. They did it after I said I couldn't take the abuse anymore and, if they did not take action, somebody was going to end up dead. I told them that I would kill to keep from being killed. Self-preservation is the first law of nature.
Today I'm a sophomore in college and a writer. To deal with my past, I have written a book entitled "Somebody's Child" that's scheduled to be published next year. My abusive situation did not break my spirit or hinder my progress. However, I believe that if I hadn't managed to escape the abuse, I would have become another statistic, like Rita.
I have often heard the phrase, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger." This might be true. But no matter how much I write or try to push the memories away, the pain I feel when I hear about cases such as Rita Fisher's strikes me close to my heart.
Stacey Patton, a summer intern at The Sun, is a sophomore at the Johns Hopkins University.
Pub Date: 8/10/97