Tears flow at vigil for Detroit kids found in freezer

George Hunter and Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Detroit — A vigil for two Detroit children who were killed and entombed in a freezer — allegedly by their mother — drew scores of people Friday night calling for the community to unite against such horrific abuse.

Standing outside the family's townhouse on St. Aubin, its porch overflowing with candles, colorful balloons and stuffed animals, the crowd of neighbors, relatives, elected officials and others demanded that the violence against Stoni Blair, 13, and her brother, Stephen Berry, 9, never happen to other children.

Autopsies conducted Friday determined the children died from multiple blunt trauma wounds and burns, according to the Wayne County Medical Examiner's Office, which declared their deaths homicides. Charges had not yet been filed Friday in the children's deaths.

"It takes all of us out here today to raise a child," Detroit City Council member Mary Sheffield told the crowd at the vigil.

The children's great-aunt, Angela Gordon, and others who gathered at the Martin Luther King Apartments on Detroit's near east side stressed the need to not assign blame and to learn what enabled the alleged abuse to continue for so long. Two surviving children in the household also were abused, according to officials.

"I pray my niece gets the psychiatric care that she so desperately needs," Gordon said through tears.

Others saw the deaths as a reminder to strengthen community ties, boost resources for struggling residents and watch out for all youths.

"We need to come together. Ask questions. … Get to know your neighbors," said Tori Childs, who lives nearby. "This has got to stop."

Amid shouts and applause, the Rev. David Bullock led the large crowd in chants of "Enough is enough" and "This will never happen again!"

At one point during the vigil, participants released balloons into the darkening sky, yelling "We love you, Stoni Blair; we love you, Stephen Berry" into the air.

Among them was Nataki Nelson, a neighbor, who paused to watch the flickering candles her sister left near the home's front stoop. She said the slayings were "so sad" but was encouraged by many strangers pledging to keep better watch over each other.

"We need this often," she said. "A tragedy like this shouldn't have to happen for us to come together."

Following the revelations of the horrific abuse that 35-year-old Mitchelle Blair allegedly inflicted on Stoni, Stephen and their two surviving siblings, questions surfaced Friday about how officials, family and neighbors failed to detect the chaos in the family's townhouse.

Blair's two surviving children, an 8-year-old boy and 17-year-old girl, are living with Gordon. Gordon, a former Detroit police child abuse investigator, said in a telephone interview earlier Friday that she understands questions about why she didn't see signs of abuse.

"It's a valid question; I would ask that myself," said Gordon, who retired from the police force eight years ago, after 26 years.

Gordon said she cared for her niece's children for years, but finally issued an ultimatum: "I told her she needed to start taking care of her family," she said. That caused Blair to cut off contact, Gordon said.

Gordon said she "knew there had been some abuse going on, but not at that level."

According to a juvenile court report, state Child Protective Services workers had contact with Blair in September 2002 and February 2005 after allegations of abuse surfaced. The petition said the abuse was "substantiated."

After the February 2005 Child Protective Services complaint, "Blair was referred for services through Families First, CBC Counseling Services, Eastwood Clinic (individual and family counseling and psychological evaluation) and Work First," the report said.

Department of Human Services officials said in the report Blair received services in the past, including Families First and counseling. According to the agency's website, "Families First of Michigan ... workers assist families by teaching, modeling and reinforcing parenting."

Gordon said Blair was required by the state to attend classes. "I don't know if they ever did a psychological evaluation, although they don't always do those when there are signs of abuse," she said. "If they did, half the people in Detroit would be having evaluations."

Bob Wheaton, spokesman for the DHS, said he couldn't discuss specifics of Blair's case because of privacy laws, but said the agency has no legal authority to continue monitoring families after cases are closed.

"Usually, when we open a case, it's because we received a report from someone tipping us to possible abuse and neglect," Wheaton said. "We make a determination whether to investigate, and if we do, we make a determination as to what kind of oversight to provide for the family.

"What action we take is based on a risk assessment, determining the needs of the children and figuring out the best way to make sure the children are safe.

"We might provide services for some time, but once we close the case, we have no legal authority to be involved with the family indefinitely."

Blair was arraigned Thursday — before the autopsies — in 36th District Court on four counts of first-degree child abuse, a 15-year felony, and one count of committing child abuse first-degree in the presence of another child, a felony punishable by up to life in prison. Bond was set at $1 million. She's being held in the Wayne County jail.

Sandrew King, a longtime resident of the Martin Luther King complex, said he's not sure whether anyone knew the level of abuse Blair is alleged to have inflicted on her kids.

"This was a systematic failure, and because of that, two children are dead," said King, who was friends with Blair and whose wife went to school with her. "There's a group of people who have lived in the MLK homes for years, and we all watch out for the kids."

But, King added, some residents keep their heads down and say nothing when they see wrongdoing. Until Detroit police last year stepped up enforcement in the complex, it was known for open drug-dealing and frequent violence, and King said residents have learned to look the other way.

"These walls are paper-thin, so I'm sure someone must have heard the kids being punished, but a lot of people don't want to get involved," he said. "I know if anyone in my group had known, they'd have called the police. But not everyone will do that."

A Detroit police investigator's report and a petition filed Thursday in Wayne County Juvenile Court say the children endured abuse including beatings with hot irons, wood planks and extension cords. Blair also reportedly starved her daughter before strangling her to death, nine months after allegedly scalding and killing her son.

The surviving children knew about the bodies in their apartment, and, according to the court report, the girl was forced to put Stoni's body in the freezer, on top of her brother, who was killed nine months earlier.