The Miami Herald—Herrera's Nightmare in Fostercare

Posted on Sun, May. 08, 2005

Her nightmare began as a foster child

BY FRED GRIMM
fgrimm@herald.com

She wears red, the uniform for high-security prisoners.

She spends 23 hours a day in a solitary cell, peering through a glass door at a television in the hallway outside her door. No window. No view. No notion of the outside world.

For an hour a day, Yusimil Herrera is taken to the yard. With no more than one other prisoner. Echoes of 400 other inmates reverberate through the concrete and steel ambience of the county lock-up, but those sounds come from a world apart. She leads a lonely life in a crowded place.

Yet Yusimil says it's better here, locked away on the third floor of the Miami-Dade Women's Detention Center, than in the places of her childhood. "Nobody touches me here..."

In the jail chapel, she talks of her life as a ward of the state, beginning at age 2 when she and her sister were abandoned in Miami by their drug- addict mother and consigned like warehouse commodities to a string of foster homes and psychiatric lock-ups.

PAINFUL MEMORIES
The memories come like fragments of shattered glass. Jagged. Painful. Shards of mistreatment, sexual abuse, medical malfeasance and stunning bureaucratic negligence. They're the recollections of a perpetually unwanted child. She tries to remember someone in her wretched life, but, "Nobody loved me."

She skips a few horrors, though they're detailed in the 1999 civil lawsuit she won against the state. What she does tell is enough to make the crime that brought her here, charged with the February 2004 death of her baby Angel Hope, seem an almost inevitable tragedy in a wretched sequence. Count some 20 foster homes. The first sexual abuse came at 3. Her earliest memory: "I was sitting too close to the television, and my foster mother burned me in the butt. A cigarette."

A medical examination, when she was 8, noted the burn scars down her back. Other homes featured other tortures. At 9, she was shipped off to a psychiatric hospital where the supervisor of guards made her perform oral sex. "Almost every night."

She was gang raped at 15 and became pregnant. "I didn't want to have a rape baby." But her foster mother, she says, forbade an abortion. "She told me that would be murder. But I think she just wanted the extra money from the state that comes with a baby."

SCARS ON HER BELLY
Yusimil pulls up her shirt enough to show the scars on her belly where she tried to cut the fetus out.

State workers fixed her problems by pumping her full of psychotropic drugs not approved for children. "Sometimes all I could do was sit there and drool on myself." The drugs caused the child to lactate. Yet, the Department of Children & Families opted to maintain her as a manageable zombie. In jail, she still takes a regimen of psychotropic meds. "Some for my seizures. Some to calm me down. Some for the voices in my head."

Her weight has doubled during her year in jail. Her eyes are glassy. Her laugh seems a mirthless, nervous reaction. She tells of once muffing suicide, putting a bag over her head — and she laughs that laugh.

But when she talks about the guard coming to her bed for sex. Or the gang rape. Or her dead baby. Her eyes widen, her lips quiver, the pain eclipses the mental haze.

She knew last year, she says, that she had none of the coping skills for motherhood. She had thought of giving Angel up. "I wish I had. But I didn't want to be like my mother."

Yusimil's murder trial, says her lawyer, Mark Eiglarsh, is set for June but will likely be postponed. She doesn't react. She misses even the irony that she's in jail while all her abusers walk free. She apologizes for hating that guard. "I know I shouldn't hate him, but I do."

She does ask, as the interview ends, that somebody remember the other foster kids, living these same horrors, repeating the same cycle. "They need help. Somebody needs to help those kids."