Not for the first time, the school contacted the city’s child welfare agency. Later, a social worker gently coaxed the story from the boy: His mother and her boyfriend had hurt him repeatedly.
Five months later, his short life came to an end after yet another brutal beating, and Wednesday, his mother’s boyfriend, Rysheim Smith, 45, was found guilty of murder after a trial that started in early December.
The trial not only exposed the horrific torture and abuse the boy had endured at the hands of his mother, Geraldine Perkins, and Smith but also laid bare a series of missteps by city officials who had failed to intervene despite clear signs the child was in danger. Zymere’s murder sparked a public outcry that led to systemic changes within the city’s child welfare agency, city officials said.
“The child welfare agency didn’t protect Zymere Perkins, even though they were in the best positions to do that,” a prosecutor, Kerry O’Connell said in summations. “But at the end of the day, Geraldine Perkins and Rysheim Smith are the only people criminally responsible for Zymere’s death. ”
Perkins admitted she took part in the abuse. She pleaded guilty to manslaughter and child endangerment, and agreed to testify for the prosecution in return for a more lenient sentence.
For five days, she described to the jury, with little emotion or remorse, how she had become blindly infatuated with Smith and how she had never tried to stop him as he brutalized and starved Zymere during their 16-month relationship. She told jurors she thought the beatings would make her son a good man.
Smith’s lawyer, Arnold Levine, tried to cast blame for the boy’s death on Perkins, pointing to evidence that she had begun abusing her son before she met his client. In closing arguments, he suggested Perkins had lied, painting Smith as the main abuser to save herself from a long prison sentence.
But after two days of deliberations, the jury found Smith guilty of all counts, including murder, manslaughter and endangering the welfare of a child. He faces a minimum of 15 years in prison and a maximum of life when he is sentenced March 27.
The Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus Vance, thanked the jury for its verdict, calling Zymere’s death “an unthinkable tragedy that sent shock waves through the city and inspired a reckoning with how our social services system works to protect New York’s most vulnerable.”
“Mommy, I want to go home.”
Zymere was born the same month his mother graduated from high school. She had tested positive for marijuana at his birth and soon came under the scrutiny of the child welfare agency.
A short time later, Geraldine Perkins’ grandmother, who had raised her, kicked her out of the apartment, accusing the young woman of sleeping with her husband.
Homeless, the mother and child shuttled from one city shelter to another. Sometimes, Perkins exchanged sexual favors for money to support them, she told the jury.
Then in May 2015, while walking back to Hamilton Place, a shelter for battered women in Harlem, a man who was standing on the sidewalk asked for her number. At first she declined, but she later agreed to go out with him. He was twice her age and college educated, and he often brought her flowers, she said.
“It was magical,” she told the jury. “He was like my Prince Charming.” Soon she and Zymere moved into his Harlem apartment on West 135th Street, evidence at trial showed.
But her fairy tale soon became Zymere’s nightmare. Over the next year, child welfare officials received at least five reports that Zymere was being abused, a city official testified. The first one came in June 2015 just a month after the couple met, when someone reported Zymere had been injured. At trial, witnesses testified Smith had whipped the boy with a belt at a housewarming party.
The child welfare agency closed that investigation after 60 days, having failed to find sufficient evidence to determine what had happened.
Around the same time, Perkins said, Smith punched Zymere in the jaw and knocked a tooth out. Smith was angry, she said, because Zymere had gotten in trouble at school after asking to see another boy’s penis, a sign in Smith’s mind of homosexuality, which he said he abhorred.
“‘Mommy, I want to go home,’” Perkins recalled Zymere begging her. But, she said: “I’d just ignore it because I was in love with Rysheim, and I felt in some way he must be right.”
Zymere missed 36 days of class between September and November 2015, frequently because of injuries inflicted at home, prosecutors said.
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Perkins said Smith subjected her son to brutal discipline. Zymere was regularly forced to skip meals, take cold showers, hold a plank position for prolonged periods and stand upright all night without sleep, his mother testified.
She did nothing to stop the abuse, she said, because she admired Smith’s grown children, who lived in Boston and seemed to her to be successful. She, too, participated in the beatings, she said, using a belt or a broomstick to hit Zymere so it would not hurt her hand. “I believed it was right what he was doing,” she said of Smith.
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During Zymere’s kindergarten year, the child welfare agency received four more allegations that the child had been mistreated, and while it investigated some of them, it never asked a judge to remove him from the home.
The last incident was in April 2016, when a teacher noticed Zymere limping and sent him to the school nurse. The nurse, Elizabeth Garcia, said he had oval-shaped bruises along his inner thighs. “They were like when a child is hit with a belt,” she told the court.
School administrators escorted Zymere and his mother to a nearby city office, where the child was interviewed on camera and explained what had happened to him.
Months passed. Summer came and the abuse continued inside Smith’s dark, roach-infested apartment, which had not had electricity for more than a year. Zymere never returned to school.
A torturous death
The night before he died, Zymere’s mother heard him rustling through the garbage, looking for the couple’s discarded leftovers because they had not allowed him to eat for days.
The next day — Sept. 26, 2016 — Perkins came into the living room and found Smith holding Zymere up in the air “like a rag doll” and beating him with a broomstick, she testified.
Her boyfriend was ranting that he could smell feces, she said. Although Zymere had been potty-trained when he was a toddler, he sometimes had accidents, in part because he was afraid of the dark and the trip to the bathroom scared him, his mother said.
Smith hauled the boy to the shower and held him up to the spigot, Perkins said. Zymere screamed under the frigid water. Smith then took the shower rod and beat Zymere until he went limp, his mother said. He hung the child by his tank top on the hook of the bathroom door.
“‘Leave him,’” Perkins recalled Smith saying. “‘Cause he’s faking.’”
Perkins said she took the lifeless boy off the hook. But Smith grabbed him from her arms and threw him into a bedroom, where he clunked to the floor.
Smith left to pick up takeout sandwiches for the couple. Perkins said she sat on her bed and read the Bible. Eventually, she picked Zymere up and washed him, but he did not wake up. She changed her clothes and put on makeup before she took her son to a hospital.
He had been dead for hours, prosecutors said. A doctor likened his injuries to those of someone hit by a car.
A community’s sense of betrayal
After Zymere’s death, neighbors lit candles and left them on a sidewalk in Harlem, recalling a little boy who often sat on a nearby stoop eating ice cream.
“The community felt a sense of betrayal,” Mark Levine, city councilman for the district, recalled in a recent interview. “Even when neighbors and school personnel did the right thing and made these reports, they were not heeded.”
After Zymere’s death, two caseworkers lost their jobs and several others in the Administration for Children’s Services were disciplined. Three months later, the city’s child welfare commissioner, Gladys Carrión, stepped down over long-running concerns about the agency’s supervision of vulnerable children, including Zymere.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, who said the city had missed clear warning signs in Zymere’s case, appointed a new commissioner, David Hansell, who ordered a review of the agency.
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Since then, the agency has taken steps to make investigations more timely and improve preventive services for parents like Perkins. Hansell also created new lines of communications between case workers and school officials and has started using attendance records to spot abuse.
School nurses have been trained to photograph injuries. The management of cases has been tightened at child advocacy centers, like the one where Zymere was interviewed five months before his death.
“We have learned a lot from the tragic fatality of Zymere Perkins,” Hansell said. “And we’ve striven to use it to strengthen all the components of our system.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times .