To some, Rita Denise Fisher was a skinny third-grader who scavenged for food, yet feared she would be punished if she told anyone about the ache in her stomach. To others, she was a sweet little girl who reluctantly admitted that her own mother caused the bruises under her sad eyes.
Some recalled her as the scruffy kid who liked to play outside, but oddly enough rarely left her house in her last weeks alive. Others knew her as the baby of a family with a long history of abuse, the frailest member of a household where equipping the refrigerator with an alarm seemed a reasonable idea.
A host of people -- teachers, neighbors, friends and social workers -- saw vivid signs of a child in trouble. Some of them reported their fears to authorities. Yet no one put together all the clues.
No one saved Rita Fisher's life.
A trial -- notable for its horrifying descriptions of the abuse and torture that led to Rita's death -- ended Tuesday in murder convictions against Rita's mother, her older sister and the sister's boyfriend.
More than that, the case sparked a widespread emotional response from many who wondered how the system -- albeit overburdened with 250 new complaints of abuse each month -- could have overlooked or misread such disturbing signals.
"I think the trial pointed out that there are gaps in the system," said Barbara L. Gradet, director of the Baltimore County Department of Social Services for the past two months. "The system is flawed, and we are improving it."
With a history of neglect and abuse, Rita Fisher's family had been known to the system for at least eight years. In the six months before her death, Rita and her teen-age sister, Georgia, had been the subject of at least five reports about neglect or abuse filed with the DSS by teachers and neighbors.
Yet, the social worker assigned to help the family never talked to the girls' teachers, to the police detective investigating Rita's allegation of abuse -- or to Rita about claims that her mother beat her. Nor did she visit the child's home in the nearly seven weeks before her death.
"My purpose was not to protect Rita from abuse," social worker Tear Plater said in testimony that brought a sharp rebuke from Gradet.
Testimony showed that Rita and her sister had been locked in a makeshift basement dungeon, known as "the hole," for weeks before her death, and that she had been deprived of food and water. In the last six months of her life, the 9-year-old lost 6 pounds.
When she died June 25, her body was emaciated and battered.
Reviews of the case concluded that school, police and social service workers failed to communicate effectively, making it nearly impossible to assemble a complete picture of Rita's precarious existence.
The 10-day trial outlined a disturbing series of signs.
A teacher's aide at Winand Elementary School testified that Rita started the school year smiling and happy but gradually became withdrawn and despondent.
The aide, Mary Friedman, said she once saw Rita grab a sandwich off a hallway floor. She said Rita was never one to take another child's toys, but tried to steal food.
Rita's teacher, Lorraine Thomas, said she considered sending Rita to the principal's office for stealing food.
Yet Friedman said teachers frequently gave Rita a late afternoon snack so she wouldn't go home with an empty stomach. She recalled the time Rita went to the nurse because of stomach pains. The girl, she said, was terrified when she was asked to have her mother sign a form letter.
"I'm going to get in trouble at home," the aide recalled Rita saying. "I'm not supposed to tell when my stomach hurts."
Rita came to school in January with bruises on her face and told teachers her mother hit her with a stick.
Teachers at Winand filed a report of suspected abuse on Jan. 7, 1997, but police and social workers said they didn't have enough evidence to file criminal charges or remove her from the home. Rita repeatedly recanted her allegations against her mother.
Six days after the incident, Rita was examined by pediatrician Alvin A. Stambler, who recalled seeing a bruise on her thigh but testified that the facial discoloration was an "allergic shiner."
Neighbors heard frequent arguing and screaming from the family's home on Old Milford Mill Road. One, Lori Burris, said she frequently saw Rita and Georgia playing outside their small brick house in Pikesville -- but she didn't see any sign of them for weeks last June.
"I didn't think of it at the time," Burris testified.
Another neighbor, Carol Keen, testified that she twice saw Mary Utley beat Rita in spring 1997. She said she called the Department of Social Services both times.
Social services officials say they believe that Keen called, but they have never found any record of the reports. And Plater, the social worker assigned to the family, said she never knew about Keen's calls.