(The Root) — It was supposed to be a quick trip to the store, a 10:30 a.m. walk for a gallon of milk.
On June 23 in New Orleans, Brandajah Smith — a dark-chocolate confection of a 5-year-old with a mind full of questions — needed milk for her cereal. But getting to the store and back was the kind of task easier to accomplish quickly without a little one in tow. So her mother, Ladericka Smith, set out alone and locked the door behind her, thinking that her little girl would be all right.
By 10:50 a.m., Smith found Brandajah lying unconscious but breathing at the bottom of a bedroom closet with a bullet wound near the center of her forehead. The little girl had found a .38 revolver belonging to the man with whom the family was staying.
Brandajah died a short time later after being taken off life support. Police arrested her mother and charged her with cruelty to a juvenile. In June a grand jury indicted Smith on charges of second-degree murder.
Brandajah's death raised a number of troubling questions. In the nearly four months since she died, two possible explanations have emerged. In one version, her death was a tragic accident, the accidental shooting of a little girl with boundless curiosity and more than enough trauma in her short lifetime. The other version is even more tragic: a kindergartner's intentional suicide in the wake of a series of adult failures and possible crimes.
A Short, Sad Life
The suicides of young children remain in the realm of the exceedingly rare. But child-welfare experts and legal observers say that Brandajah's death is an event worthy of national attention not simply because of its novelty or the melancholia it is likely to inspire. Poor children — a group rapidly growing in the United States — face far greater risks of all types of deadly and deeply damaging harm, including an encounter with a firearm.
For now, America's response to this problem seems to be arresting bereaved parents whom prosecutors suspect of having failed in their most basic duty to protect children. But what are the nation's duties to these troubled families before the children die? What are the nation's duties to ensure that justice is served?
Even before the June day Brandajah died, almost nothing about her life could be described as ideal, interviews with relatives, public and private records reveal.
Brandajah frequently moved with her mother and 8-year-old sister, couch surfing at the homes of family and friends, a relative told The Root on condition of anonymity. On more than one occasion, Smith spent time in jail after arrests for prostitution, theft and failures to appear in court or pay required fines, according to public records. (Smith's court-appointed lawyer declined to comment when contacted by The Root because Smith's case is pending.)
Living with such turmoil may have been too much for Brandajah.
At John Dilbert Community School, teachers and counselors filled the little girl's school records with alarming details. Information shared by Brandon Pierre, the girl's father, indicates that the school contacted state child-welfare officials multiple times. The school believed that the little girl was being sexually abused. And there was something else.
"She had expressed suicidal ideations to a school counselor," says Orleans Parish Assistant District Attorney Christopher Bowman, who serves as a spokesman for the area prosecutor's office. "She was apparently very, very close to her 8-year-old sister and apparently asked, 'If I kill myself, will I still see my sister?' "
According to school records, officials at John Dilbert were so nervous, they assigned a school aide to shadow Brandajah. The aide's job: never leave the 5-year-old alone, not even for a trip to the bathroom, according to Bowman. (The school's principal did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
Prosecutors allege that Brandajah's mother was well-aware of the school's concerns. School records indicate that the mother had been warned that staying with her cousin — a felon who has since been charged with illegal possession of a gun — simply was not safe.
Pierre says that he was unaware of Brandajah's troubles at school; he says no one shared the information in the school files with him until after his daughter's death. He also says that he did not see his daughter as often as he would have because his relationship with her mother was strained.
"Reading some of the things in that [school] file, they made my stomach turn," he says. "I had no idea all of this was going on. But I wish to God that I had."
Falling Through The Cracks
Ladericka Smith's criminal record and limited education made it difficult for her to get a job, her family member said. According to the relative, Smith, 28, also tried but wasn't able to sign up for welfare benefits. Smith is part of a large group of Louisianans who have been rejected from welfare rolls in the state.
Thanks to welfare reform in the 1990s, some states, such as Louisiana, have drastically slashed aid, primarily by making it very hard for people to apply for cash assistance and the other aid it often leads to, such as housing and child care, according to Donna Pavetti, vice president for family income support policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
By 2010 only 7 out of every 100 poor families in Louisiana were receiving cash welfare payments, according to federal data.
But lack of money wasn't Smith's only problem, her family member says.
Sometimes Smith's priorities seemed out of whack, the relative said. She argued with her family, but her children always mattered, the relative added. The girls — two of Smith's three children and the only ones in her care — were almost always clean and well dressed, with their hair arranged in precise ponytails.
But on that morning when Smith dashed out for her milk run, she later told police, she didn't immediately head home. Instead, she told police, she got distracted, stopping en route to watch a street fight. Prosecutors also say Smith knew that the gun was in the house, that it was frequently kept under a pillow or on a shelf, unlocked and possibly accessible to little, curious hands.
"In this case, this mother did not own or use the gun that killed this child," says Kendall Green, chief of trials for the Orleans Public Defenders Office. "No one is saying she did everything right here. But there are real questions about how much this mother even knew about this gun or where it was."
In the interim, Smith remains in jail, unable to pay her bond.
The idea that a child as young as 5 might be suicidal is difficult to fathom, says Dr. Charles Zeanah Jr., vice chair of child and adolescent psychiatry at Tulane University. But children facing severe difficulties such as physical or sexual abuse, instability or violence in their home and other traumatic conditions can indeed feel a desire to harm themselves or even die, says Zeanah.
Suicide among preschool and even elementary-school-age children is, thankfully, extremely rare, he says. But warning signs should never be ignored. Children as young as Brandajah do not truly understand the permanency of death, Zeanah says. Nor can they grasp the real meaning of a fatal injury.
"There are two dangers in a case like this," says Zeanah. "One is that we dismiss it and think, 'Oh, young children can't be that troubled. They can't actually be depressed.' The other is that we assume that a 5- or 6-year-old is capable of understanding suicide the same way as a 35- or 40-year-old."
When contacted by The Root, the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services would not discuss efforts it made to investigate the school's concerns, share them with Brandajah's mother or father, remove Brandajah or provide services to her family. "As with any fatality where the department has a prior history with the family, DCFS is conducting an internal review into the death of Brandajah Smith," Trey Williams, a DCFS spokesman, wrote in an email to The Root.
In Louisiana, the state code does allow a person to be charged with second-degree murder if, while committing a felony, he or she unintentionally contributes to the fatal injury of a victim.
For Leon Cannizzaro Jr., the Orleans Parish district attorney, what police found, along with the details of Brandajah's DCFS and school records, was clear. A grand jury agreed, returning a second-degree-murder indictment against Laderika Smith.
The potential penalty for Brandajah's mother: mandatory life in prison.
In what legal experts say was a highly unusual move, Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Darryl Derbigny overrode Smith's murder indictment at a late-September hearing. The district attorney filed notice with the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals indicating that he would appeal the lower court's ruling. The process could take months to conclude.
"This mother did everything but put the gun in the child's hand," says Bowman, with the prosecutor's office. "She knew the child was in distress. She knew there was a weapon in the house, and she knew that her daughter knew where it was located. And then she left her alone."
The prosecutor's decision does not sit well with everyone watching the case.
"Listen, without any doubt, there are a lot of questions that can be asked about why a 5-year-old was left at home alone with a gun," says D. Majeeda Snead, a longtime New Orleans criminal-defense attorney and clinical professor at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law. Snead is not directly involved in the case. "But I also think there may be some other questions that need to be asked and answered here. Did the broader system of child services fail her? Did the system fail this family, long before this child died?"
Janell Ross is a reporter in New York who covers political and economic issues. She is working on a book about race, economic inequality and the recession, due to be published by Beacon Press next year. Follow her on Twitter.