Generations bred in despair

Children: Life, bleak since birth for Sierra Swann, got grimmer in her search for love.

May 19, 2004|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

Long before Sierra Swann was charged, along with Nathaniel Broadway, with murdering her month-old twin girls last week, she lived with her mother, five siblings and her mother's boyfriend in a one-bedroom apartment that lacked electricity.

Her mother, Donna Brown, admitted that she battled a crack addiction. Sierra's father wasn't in the picture.

It wasn't uncommon for Swann, now 17, to have to pitch in to raise her younger siblings.

Despite those bleak circumstances, Swann was distraught at age 13 when Child Protective Services split up her family, according to her godmother, Vernedia "Shawn" Southers.

To compensate for the love she did not receive at home, Southers said, Swann turned to boys. Though she was a cute girl with plenty of suitors, one in particular struck her fancy. Swann and Broadway became inseparable.

Broadway, 24, wasn't known to hold a job, friends said, and court documents show he had spent time in jail on minor charges.

Initially, he seemed to care for Swann, Brown said, but the relationship grew rocky.

"I never really liked him," said Brown, who acknowledges using crack for years but proudly shows certificates received for completing drug rehab programs. "She used to call me and tell me her and Nate got in a fight ... and I'd just tell her come here, come see me, we'll talk, and I used to tell her to just leave him alone."

Maranda Walker, Southers' 15-year-old daughter, said she and Swann were best friends. They met because Brown and Southers used to be neighbors.

"We were best friends up until December, up until the first child was removed," Maranda said yesterday. "Me and her were best friends for a long time."

Before Swann gave birth to the two infants who died, Emonney and Emunnea, she had another child, Nairaa.

Southers said Swann blamed her when CPS took Nairra, now a toddler. But the mother of six, who admits she's a recovering drug addict, said she couldn't continue ignoring obvious signs of abuse.

"One time Nairra had bite marks all over her," Southers said. "She weighed less than 20 pounds when she was almost 2. One time Nairra came over here and the whole side of her face was swollen, and her left eye was shut. I was like, I cannot keep letting her come over here looking worse than the time before. The baby smelled like pee every time she came. I would take her upstairs to give her a bath and feed her."

Swann and Nairra spent a lot of time at Southers' Cokesbury Avenue home, but Southers said she didn't like Broadway and didn't want him around.

"They'd settle down for the night, and I'd think they were going to stay but he'd [Broadway] come as late as 1 a.m.," Southers said. "He would knock on the basement window where Maranda sleeps, and Sierra would jump up and leave when he came."

One day in December, "I called the [Department of Social Services] on the phone and told them Nairra was here and it looked like her front teeth had been knocked out," Southers said. "When Sierra saw them coming she said, `Shawn, my workers are here, please don't let them in,' and then she ran out the back door with the baby. She was hiding with Nairra in the bushes on the next street over."

Southers said one of the two social workers quickly found Swann, who was a foster home runaway and was pregnant with the twins. The social workers took Nairra from Swann.

But before the two social workers left Southers' home, she and her daughter insist, they told them that Swann was pregnant again.

"They knew she was pregnant," Southers said. "I have no doubt about that. I'm not trying to blame Social Services, but if they say they didn't know she was pregnant, and that's what I read in the paper, they knew. I sat here and told them."

Department of Social Services spokeswoman Sue Fitzsimmons said last night she could not confirm Southers' account.

"We may have been told by somebody that she was pregnant, but I can't confirm or deny that at this point," Fitzsimmons said. "What I'm saying to you is with runaway teens, it's hard to give them services if they're not present for the services. We don't lock children up. We don't have foster homes that lock children up. We don't have offices with locks."

On April 12, Swann gave birth to the twin girls - one was delivered en route to Johns Hopkins Hospital.

The baby came out into the leg of Swann's sweat pants, where the newborn stayed until a doctor removed her, said City Health Commissioner Dr. Peter L. Beilenson. Brown said her daughter rode in a taxicab to the hospital, where the other girl was born.

On May 11, a 911 call sent paramedics rushing to 1907 E. 31st St. in Northeast Baltimore, where Swann, Broadway and the girls lived in the basement of a vacant rowhouse that lacked such basic necessities as electricity and a toilet.

The severely malnourished girls were pronounced dead at Hopkins Hospital, and an autopsy revealed they both had fractured skulls and ribs.

Swann and Broadway are in custody, each charged with two counts of first-degree murder and child abuse causing death. They have been denied bail.

Brown insists her daughter had a "happy childhood" that included going shopping, braiding hair for her siblings and neighborhood pals. She said Swann earned good grades in school and never gave her any trouble.

"Sierra loved children. She loved them," Brown said. "I can't see her hurting them twins."

Brown's other children - ages 1 to 14 - are in the custody of relatives and live in Baltimore. She said she's working to "get them back" although she admits rarely seeing Swann while the girl lived in foster homes.

The two last spoke Sunday, when Swann called Brown from jail to wish her mother a happy birthday.

Now Brown awaits one more call - from a woman who's trying to help with funeral arrangements for the twins, who Swann wants to have cremated.

The girls' ashes are supposed to remain with Brown.

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