From Lisa to Zymere, the battered children who braved bruises before death

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NEW YORK -- Lisa Steinberg was a precocious 6-year-old attending public school in Greenwich Village in 1987, when a teacher asked her about the bruise on her cheek.

The bruise is evident on a video taken at a children’s birthday party. Lisa told the teacher her baby brother gave it to her.

Like Zymere Perkins, who was 6 years old when he was pronounced dead in Harlem last week — nearly 30 years after Lisa Steinberg — Lisa had spent her dying hours in a bathroom.

While prosecutors said in court that Zymere was beaten with a broomstick and then hung by his T-shirt on a bathroom door, Lisa was thrown against a wall in November 1987 by her father figure, attorney Joel Steinberg, who then went out to dinner.

When Steinberg returned, his live-in girlfriend later testified that they freebased cocaine together, while Lisa lay dying on the bathroom floor.

PIX11 looked at one case a decade — beginning with the Steinberg case in 1987 — to illustrate how warning signs always seem to be there in cases of child abuse, but somehow, they’re not enough to save every child.

Steinberg’s girlfriend, Hedda Nussbaum, was labeled a battered woman by prosecutors, after they videotaped the bruises and sores on her body in the police precinct. Nussbaum testified she was under Steinberg’s spell.

The jury refused to convict Steinberg of murder, settling on the lesser charge of manslaughter in the first degree. Steinberg spent 17 years in prison, before his release in 2004 to a Harlem halfway house.

In 1997, PIX11 broke the story of Justina Morales, who was missing more than a year from the public school system in Brooklyn. Justina’s mother had told school officials she was transferring to a new neighborhood, but no follow-up was ever done. Thirteen months later, an aunt who had not seen the child for a long time reported her concerns to authorities.

It turned out that Justina was beaten and suffocated on New Year’s Eve 1995, when she was 8 years old. Her mother’s boyfriend, Luis Santiago, had tried to drown her first, with the mom, Denise Solero, holding the daughter’s hand throughout the child’s ordeal. Justina’s dying words: “Mommy, make me pretty.”

In the Morales case, the jury was once again turned off by the mother not facing liability for her daughter’s death. Santiago was convicted of manslaughter. Justina’s body was never found. Her mother said it had been thrown out with the trash on New Year’s Day 1996.

A decade later, New York City was rocked by the murder of 7-year-old Nixzmary Brown. She had been tied up, tortured, molested, and raped by her stepfather, Cesar Rodriguez. Nixzmary’s fatal beating happened, because she dared to eat a cup of yogurt in the refrigerator. Her mother and stepfather were both arrested in the killing — and both were sent to prison for decades.

The enduring symbol of the torment that Nixzmary suffered was a school chair with a nylon rope attached to it. Nixzmary would be tied to it and kept isolated in a room, away from her five siblings. U.S. Marines moved by her suffering served as pallbearers at her funeral. Six employees at the Administration for Children’s Services were disciplined and City Hall vowed to hire 525 additional caseworkers.

But ACS is an agency with high turnover, and there are heartbreaking stories we’ve told, where a child is not monitored properly.

It happened most recently with the case of Zymere Perkins. His mother, Gladys, had five child abuse allegations filed against her. It is Gladys who ran Zymere out of her boyfriend’s apartment last week, holding the child’s lifeless body in her arms.

She then fell to her knees on the sidewalk on 135th Street in Harlem, crying out “Oh, no!” Zymere was pronounced dead at the hospital not long after.