Gizzell Ford’s nightmarish last months on earth began the afternoon her father and maternal grandmother picked her up from school on a fall day in 2012, according to lawsuit filed by the 8-year-old’s mother and maternal grandfather.
Thursday, Gizzell’s paternal grandmother, Helen Ford, was found guilty of murdering the third-grader, who died after enduring months of brutal abuse that Cook County prosecutors likened to torture. Gizzell’s father, Andre Ford, who also was charged in her death, died at the Cook County Jail in 2014 while awaiting trial.
But Gizzell might still be alive today, if the cheery honor student hadn’t been sent to live with her father based on a bogus claim her mother was homeless, according to the lawsuit in civil court filed in 2014 by Sandra and Juan Mercado.
Attorney Martin Dolan said Thursday that the lawsuit had been on hold while Helen Ford’s criminal case was ongoing. Court records indicate the case was dismissed “for want of prosecution”— meaning the plaintiffs had not been actively pursuing the lawsuit — at a hearing Thursday morning just hours before the verdict in Helen Ford’s trial. Dolan said the filing was an error, and he would reinstate the case next week.
The lawsuit initially named the state Department of Child and Family Services and a pediatrician who examined Gizzell less than a month before she died; it claims DCFS case workers and the doctor failed to act on signs of abuse and neglect in the months before Gizzell died. DCFS and the caseworker were dismissed from the suit, and only the doctor, who examined Gizzell less than a month before her death, remains a defendant.
The Mercados claim that Gizzell was living happily with her mother and an infant sibling at her grandfather’s house in Melrose Park in 2010, before the start of a custody battle between Sandra Mercado and Andre Ford.
After missing several custody hearings in 2010, Andre Ford hadn’t seen his daughter for 12 month when he claimed to have received a letter that said Sandra Mercado was homeless, the lawsuit states. Ford petitioned for full custody of Gizzell, and while she said she never moved from her father’s home, Mercado said she didn’t receive notices about custody hearings.
A family court judge awarded custody to Ford in November 2012, despite the fact that he was living off disability checks and was suffering from a chronic illness that was so severe he was using a wheelchair.
On Nov. 20, the Fords showed up at Gizzell’s elementary school in Melrose Park with a custody order in hand. School officials had to call a social worker to calm Gizzell down, but eventually let the girl go with her father. She was found dead inside her grandmother’s house in Chicago seven months later, covered head to toe in bruises.
At a court hearing two weeks after the Fords took custody of Gizzell, Juan Mercado told investigators Gizzell had been living with him and her mother in his house Melrose Park, and had never been homeless. But the judge left Gizzell in the Fords’ custody, and ordered Mercado to undergo a psychiatric evaluation and take parenting classes. Mercado had not completed the classes ahead of a February custody hearing, and did not attend the hearing, the lawsuit states.
During the months Gizzell lived with the Fords, the lawsuit claims DCFS case workers and a pediatrician who examined the girl never acted on evidence that Gizzell was being abused while living with the Fords.
A doctor assigned to evaluate Gizzell less than a month before she died, the lawsuit notes, noticed Gizzell had injuries from being hit with a strap. While his observation was recorded in Gizzell’s file, the doctor either failed to report them to DCFS or caseworkers did nothing. A caseworker also failed to investigate for abuse after learning that the Fords forced Gizzell to do “squats” and other military-style exercises as punishment.
The lawsuit states Juan Mercado and other relatives who went to visit Gizzell at the Fords’ noticed she seemed to have lost weight each time they saw her, and that the outgoing girl seemed reserved in the presence of Helen Ford. Helen Ford explained the weight loss to Juan Mercado by claiming she had put Gizzell on a sugar-free diet. At court hearings, Mercado noticed the girl appeared to be wearing ill-fitting, adult-sized clothes.