A young mother tries to save two sons and loses everything

JACKSONVILLE

On the morning of the day she lost everything, her 5-year-old missed his bus. Her two youngest children were sleeping, so she told her 12-year-old son to watch them while she drove the kindergartener to school.

She would be right back.

Biannela Susana was 25, the mother of four kids, and a recent widow. She had been in Jacksonville only a few months. She didn't know many people, didn't have friends or family nearby who could help her.

She dropped her son at kindergarten. Stopped at the bank.

On her way home, her 12-year-old called, upset: His little brother, he said, had fallen off the bunk bed.

Susana ran into the apartment and found her 2-year-old curled on the bottom bunk, unconscious, a thread of blood trickling from his nose. With a baby wipe, she dabbed it away and kept begging him, "Wake up, David. Please, please wake up."

She changed his diaper and his blue pajamas. He didn't move. She poured alcohol onto a cloth and held it under his nostrils. No reaction. She pressed a bag of ice against his nose to slow the swelling. He didn't even flinch.

"What really happened?" she asked the 12-year-old, Cristian.

"I told you," Cristian said.

Susana had to know it was a lie. She knew Cristian's history, knew what he was capable of. It seems obvious now what she should have done. And inexcusable that she didn't do it.

But as David lay hurt, she thought not just of him, but of Cristian. For half her life, since she was a child herself, Cristian had been her whole world.

So that morning, Susana sank onto the bed beside her baby, logged onto her laptop and tried to save both of her sons.

The date was March 14, 2011. At 10:54 a.m., she Googled: when+someone+gets+knocked+out.

She spent another four hours on the computer before she took David to the hospital.

• • •

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel called her "FloriDUH's Worst Mom." Others were equally harsh: "You'll never believe," one blogger wrote, "what this mom did while her son was dying!"

The criminal court system, meanwhile, is reaching its own verdicts. Cristian pleaded guilty to manslaughter in David's death and was sent to juvenile detention until he turns 19.

He writes her long letters: "To the best mom in the Galaxy!"

Last spring, Susana also pleaded guilty to manslaughter. If she had taken David to the hospital sooner, one doctor said, he might have survived. She will be sentenced on Friday; the maximum penalty is 30 years.

Two advocacy groups, the Children's Campaign and the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center, have made Susana a cause celebre. Social services agencies tracked her from the time she was a child, but advocates say they didn't do enough.

"We are working to see what could have been done differently," said Weaver center president Lawanda Ravoira. She published an article in the Georgetown Journal on Poverty Law and Policy called Biannela's Story: A (Preventable?) Tragedy.

Susana has spent the last two years at the Duval County jail, awaiting her fate. She doesn't want to know what really happened in those few awful minutes while she was at the bank.

"I try not to think about it," she whispered recently in the jail's tiny visitors' room.

Susana has thick, dark hair and light eyes, the same gray as her jail scrubs. She seems much younger than her 27 years. She is earnest and well spoken for someone with an 86 IQ.

She wants to talk about her kids. Cristian was an A student who never got in trouble at school. He was going to be a football player or a history professor. Luis, 7 now, was her "little prince"; Lyanni, 6, loved to paint her toes. She doesn't know where they are now, or whom they call Mama.

David? Susana wipes her eyes. "He just wanted to be loved."

She is cast as villain, or cautionary tale, or victim. But if you listen to her story — if you pore over the police and foster-care reports and learn about the neglect and pregnancy, the abuse and suicide — you uncover a much more complicated story.

This is a young woman who had a child at 12 and spent the next decade taking care of him. A woman who didn't drink or do drugs, had never been arrested, and was working two jobs and raising four kids.

A mother, trying to make it.

• • •

In jail, she wrote a journal, 100 pages of cramped handwriting, divided into six chapters. The first is the shortest, the only one that's wholly happy: Birth to 8 years old. The last chapter spans just six months, but it's the longest and, by far, the grimmest: her life in Jacksonville.

Susana's grandmother raised her in the Dominican Republic, baked her three-tiered birthday cakes. Her dad, who lived across the street, taught her to swim.

As a young girl, she seldom saw her mother.

But when she was 8, her mom showed up and moved her to Miami. Susana didn't know anyone, didn't speak English. She says she was always alone.

Her mother drank and threw dishes. Susana's first police report is from when she was 10, when her mother didn't pick her up from school, left her waiting outside after dark. According to the 1996 incident report, she didn't remember the name of the motel where they were staying.

When Susana was 11, she started playing at a friend's apartment. The friend had a brother, who was 17.

Susana says Jose was the first person since her grandmother who made her feel special. She was willing to do whatever he wanted. But when she got pregnant, he wanted her to get an abortion. She knew her mother would say the same thing.

Susana wanted this baby more than anything. So she started wearing baggy T-shirts to fifth grade. When she felt her baby wriggling, she talked to him. "About how now I wasn't alone anymore, now I would finally have someone who will always love me and never leave me."

By the time her mother took her to the doctor, it was too late for an abortion. Within a year, Susana went from playing with Barbies to having a baby. "He was my little doll."

Jose Antonio Fernandez seldom saw his son. He was prosecuted and put on probation for 10 years and is still a registered sex offender.

Susana named her baby Cristian, "without an H, to be original." She breast-fed him, sang to him, told him all the animals' names.

• • •

Susana wanted to go back to middle school, but she says her mother made her stay home with her baby in cheap motel rooms.

One night when Susana was 14, she left Cristian with her mother so she could sleep over with a friend. At 4 a.m. the 2-year-old was spotted toddling around the motel parking lot, naked. Police found Susana's mother drunk in a room with cocaine in her purse. In the corner, according to the police report: a baby bottle, crawling with worms.

Susana's mother, Sonia Valdez, was charged with child neglect, given a case plan to follow. The next year, she moved Susana and Cristian to a mobile home with no electricity, no water. Susana was stuck there with her son all day, every day until someone called the police.

When social workers took Cristian into foster care, Susana insisted on going with him.

• • •

It would have been easier, at 16, to let someone else raise her son. But Susana never even considered giving up Cristian.

He was part BFF ("The only friend I had") and part little brother ("We grew up together"). With him, she could be the mom she wanted but never had.

So Susana got an after-school job as a cashier at KFC and started saving $200 a month.

She found a tutoring program, enrolled in parenting classes, learned Miami's bus system. Earned her GED.

At the foster home, Cristian shared a room with two other boys, ages 8 and 10. He was 5 when Susana walked in on the older boys molesting him, according to a 2004 Department of Children and Families report.

Susana took Cristian to therapy, moved him into her room. When he started kindergarten, she chaperoned field trips.

"Biannela is a very caring mom but needs to be more stern," wrote a foster care counselor.

Somehow, Susana was functioning as a mom. But a psychologist's assessment came with a warning: "She has difficulty making decisions. … She is easily overwhelmed emotionally. She is also prone to spend much time ruminating about the situation."

By the time Susana turned 18, she had saved enough to move herself and Cristian into their own place. She bought an old Toyota, taught herself to drive. She told Cristian he would never have to go back to foster care.

She promised.

• • •

Luis Galarraga was the first person who ever brought Susana flowers. Seven years older, a former minor-league ballplayer from Venezuela, he was working at a gas station when she met him. He gave Cristian candy.

They got married at the courthouse. Their first son, Luis Jr., was born that summer, 2005. Lyanni came the next year.

Cristian, who had always been an only child, who had never had a dad, didn't like sharing his mom. He grew defiant. When he was 10, Susana sent him to the Dominican Republic to stay with her grandmother, whom he had never met.

When he came back to Miami a year later, he had to share the apartment with two toddlers and a new baby, David. There were only two bedrooms, so Cristian slept on the couch.

By then, Susana was working two jobs: answering phones for a tutoring company and cleaning motel rooms. Her husband took care of the kids.

She was on her way to work on Oct. 22, 2010, when Cristian's school called. His left eye was red and swollen.

Susana called her husband. He said he caught Cristian getting dressed in front of his sister, so he punched him. Susana swears he hadn't hurt Cristian before.

She was still at the school when police went to the apartment, when her husband grabbed his gun and killed himself in front of the children. Susana says he once went to jail for a few hours and swore he would never go back.

"The door was opened … by a little girl who got frightened," said the police report. The body was surrounded by little bloody footprints.

In the apartment parking lot, Susana used baby wipes to clean off her toddlers. Then she drove to get Luis from kindergarten and to the hospital to pick up Cristian, who had a torn retina and a broken rib.

The apartment was a crime scene, so Susana drove the kids to the motel where she worked.

"Referred the case for crisis intervention, grief counseling," said the police report. Susana was scheduled to meet with social workers the next week.

Instead, she quit her jobs and moved the kids to Jacksonville.

• • •

It turned out to be an awful decision.

In Jacksonville, Susana didn't have a job and didn't know anyone except her stepsister, who was busy with her own family. She found a two-bedroom apartment, enrolled her kids in new schools, applied for work.

At night, everyone would pile into her bed to eat Popsicles.

After a month, a DCF caseworker signed her up for counseling, furniture.

Susana had an appointment with a family therapist in December, but she missed it. She was waiting for an opening in January when Cristian came in from the playground, carrying David.

• • •

He fell from the jungle gym, Cristian said.

At first, Susana didn't question him. But the next day, when David still couldn't use his left leg, Susana asked again what had happened. Cristian told a different story. He and David had been wrestling, and he had put the 2-year-old in a yoga pose.

Susana waited two days, hoping David would get better. He didn't cry, she says; he just wouldn't stand. When she finally brought him to the hospital, she repeated Cristian's story: David had slipped off the swing set.

In her journal she explains why she lied: She believed it was an accident, that Cristian never meant to hurt his brother. She didn't want him to be blamed.

"I knew that if I took him to the hospital, they would all be taken from me," she wrote.

The doctor didn't believe the lie. That break, he said, was the worst he had seen on a toddler.

A child protection investigator talked to Susana. DCF wrote a report: "The mother should be evaluated to determine what services might be helpful." Susana had another counseling appointment scheduled for Feb. 23, but she never showed.

David was still swathed in a blue cast six weeks later when Susana left him with Cristian to run to school and the bank. When she got home and found him unconscious, she lay beside him, searching for help.

• • •

Web search, March 14, 2011, 10:55 a.m.: injury/aches/concussion

11:03 a.m. Google: how+to+wake+someone+from+a+concussion

Her 2-year-old was unconscious. Her 12-year-old was telling a story that didn't make sense. Another mother might have called 911, rushed to the hospital, screamed for help.

Susana kept noodling around on the Internet.

Years ago, the psychologist had predicted such a reaction. Susana does well in many situations, the therapist said, but put her under stress and she'll freeze: "Difficulty making decisions … Easily overwhelmed … prone to spend much time ruminating …"

Susana says she called the pediatrician, but was put on hold. "So I stopped calling and kept waiting."

Her lawyer asked later, "Did you call 911?"

"No," Susana said. "I was hoping he would wake up. And I was scared DCF would take my kids."

At 11:27 a.m., she downloaded a reggaeton album by Yomo. She swears she doesn't remember that, but it's right there, etched into the computer's history.

Then the laptop log stops for three hours.

2:39 p.m.: mayoclinic.com: health/concussions/symptoms

2:51 p.m.: wikipedia.org/Coma

All this time, Cristian was at school. When he came home, Susana told him to watch Luis. She put Lyanni's shoes on her, packed a bag with snacks for when David woke up. Seven hours after he lost consciousness, she wrapped him in a blanket and made one final search.

3:07 p.m. Google: St.+Lukes+Hospital

• • •

David's skull was split, his brain bleeding. He was flown by helicopter to Shands Jacksonville Medical Center. "He was hooked up to a bunch of machines," Susana says. "I curled my fingers with his and I told him I loved him and to please wake up."

A doctor said: He's not going to make it.

When he asked what happened, Susana said she had been home when David fell. "I thought they were going to think I was crazy for leaving David with Cristian … after what happened before," she wrote in her journal.

Then a police officer took her to the station and told her: Cristian confessed. He had bashed his little brother's head into a bookshelf. Twice.

On the night of the day she lost everything, Cristian slept in jail. Luis and Lyanni went into foster care. Susana drove to the hospital and held David as he died.

• • •

For two weeks, alone in her apartment, she agonized about her kids. What would happen to Cristian? Where were the others?

On visiting day, she went to see her 12-year-old. She still didn't believe he meant to kill his brother. Did Cristian blame David for that year she sent him away? Was he acting out because of the sexual abuse? Re-enacting the beating from his stepdad?

Did any of that even matter?

"He said he didn't think I would still want him as my son," Susana says. "That broke my heart. Or what little I had left of my heart."

Police arrested Susana on April 1, set her bail at $1 million. All she can think of is getting released.

"When Cristian gets out, I need to be there for him," she says. "I promised."

• • •

Ask her what she thinks her punishment should be and Susana says, "The worst has already happened."

All she ever wanted was to be a mom. But now her baby is dead, her oldest son in detention, and her two middle children have been adopted. Without her kids, she says, she's nothing.

Guidelines say she should spend 13 years in prison. Cristian will be released in five.

Recently, he wrote to his mom in jail, and drew a sunflower.

"Dear Mami, I received your letter today. I loved it. I remember when we were just a family but it's my fault and I'm very sorry. :)

"I'm sorry for you being in jail," wrote Cristian, now 14. "I'll pay you back one day.

"PROMISE."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Lane DeGregory can be reached at degregory@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8825.

A young mother tries to save two sons and loses everything 07/15/13 [Last modified: Monday, July 15, 2013 12:43am]

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