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At the age of eight, Gizzell Ford was tortured, beaten, starved, and left to die in her paternal grandmother’s home. The case of child abuse in Illinois, so horrific that a judge was forced to interrupt opening statements when a juror began to cry, ignited a scandal in Chicago, especially the West Side neighborhood were Ford lived out her short life and suffered her agonizing death.
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On December 13, 2017, jurors in Chicago’s Cook County Circuit Court awarded Ford’s surviving family members $48 million in compensation, holding that a well-regarded pediatrician and child abuse expert, Dr. Norell Rosado, had committed medical negligence by ignoring potential signs of mistreatment during an examination performed just weeks before the girl’s death.
Rosado, who no longer works for Illinois’ child protective services, was part of a team investigating a report of child abuse against Ford’s mother’s boyfriend.
The report had been filed with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services by the girl’s grandmother and father, who had just gained custody after a bitter dispute in family court.
Ford’s father, Andre Ford, accused her mother of being homeless, a charge the woman vehemently denied. And Ford’s mother, Sandra Mercado, told a Chicago domestic relations judge that the man had no business caring for his daughter.
But the judge granted custody to the father, delivering Gizzell straight into the arms of a monster. Ford was placed in the home of her grandmother, who was caring for her bedridden son. From there, she was subjected to the most-horrific forms of abuse imaginable. She was denied food and water. She was tied to her father’s bedpost for days and strangled. Her grandmother, officials say, would stalk the apartment wearing a leather belt around her neck, which she would use for punishment.
At the same time, Gizzell was failed by “multiple layers of trained professionals duty-bound to protect children,” the Chicago Tribune reports. In 2013, an official from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services stopped by the apartment to investigate a claim, filed by the grandmother, that Gizzell had been molested by Mercado’s boyfriend.
As prosecutors would soon allege in court documents, the family was living in abject squalor. The apartment, infested by cockroaches, led a Chicago police sergeant to say, “I would not leave a rat in that home.” And while the child services official, in a subsequent report, noted the home’s unsanitary condition, the worker said nothing about the bruises and other wounds that covered Gizzell’s body.
Soon after, Dr. Norell Rosado performed a sexual trauma examination on the girl at the Children’s Advocacy Center, a non-profit funded through both public and private grants. Of this appointment, the Chicago Tribune writes that Dr. Rosado “noted what appeared to be an old, healed loop mark on her buttocks and linear marks on her thighs.”
Loop marks, according to the American Family Physician, are among the most common signs of childhood abuse. “Instead of questioning Gizzell alone,” the Tribune continues, “he inquired in front of Helen Ford [her grandmother] and did not challenge the grandmother’s answer that the child harmed herself.” And while Rosado cited the bruises in his report, the doctor didn’t inform the Department of Children and Family Services, or the agency investigator handling Gizzell’s case.
Over those three months, multiple child services employees failed to follow up on signs that the girl was being abused. A health services worker diagnosed her with a urinary tract infection. She told a counselor that caring for her ailing father was making her anxious. And in another interview, she told staff members at the Chicago advocacy center that her grandmother forced her to squat or stand with her arms raised for hours at a time. No one did anything. No one saved Gizzell Ford.
Helen Ford, Gizzell’s grandmother, was convicted of first-degree murder in June 2017. To the end, the Tribune reports, the woman maintained that her granddaughter had been hurting herself. In sentencing Ford, Judge Evelyn Clay said an immense amount of evidence suggested that Gizzell had been tortured in an “exceptionally brutal” manner. Helen Ford was sentenced to life in prison. Gizzell’s father died of a heart attack in a prison cell in 2014.
“We wanted justice for Gizzell,” Sandra Mercado says, explaining why she and her father, Juan Mercado, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Dr. Norell Rosado. In the course of a five-day trial in a Chicago Circuit Court, jurors were shocked by the details of the girl’s abuse and equally horrified by the alleged disregard of Dr. Rosado. After two hours of deliberation, the jurors returned to the courtroom, announcing a $48 million judgment against the physician. Cook County’s insurance company will likely pay the award.