Christina Sankey was 37. She liked old-style westerns like Gunsmoke. She lived with her mother in Philadelphia’s Point Breeze neighborhood. Christina Sankey’s family is poor. Black and poor.
She was severely disabled. She was nonverbal. She required care, and she had a caretaker, paid for by the state. But she loved to roll a ball. She loved to give hugs. She loved coffee. She loved, and lived, and was cared for.
Her mother loved her very much.
On March 6, she disappeared from the watch of her caretaker at a store in Center City. The next day, her body was found in a working-class section of West Philadelphia, some five miles away. The medical examiner said she froze to death. The police did no further investigation.
The agency responsible for her care said no comment. The city agency responsible for oversight issued a statement---two weeks after the fact and only after prompting from media inquiry. The Philadelphia District Attorney’s office issued a statement but deferred to the police department and the medical examiner’s office. The police department said, “she froze to death.” They didn’t even interview Christina’s mother, or her caretaker, who said “I’ve got nothing to say.” The circle of passing the buck was unbroken. Patricia Sankey lost her daughter.
No one cared, until Philadelphia Daily News columnist Ronnie Polaneczky wrote a barnburner of a column on April 11.
I learned about it last night.
The column just…upset me. All the things wrong with my home city just came flooding forward in my mind. A city where in the 70s, the UPenn Band didn’t fear spoofing Nixon but did fear spoofing Rizzo. Where in the 80s a mayor dithered and the police dropped a bomb on a Bundy Ranchesqe anarchist group. An established neighborhood burned, the plume of smoke visible for miles. The plume, blotting out the sun over my nearby neighborhood, is my earliest, most vivid memory. It’s the city that built stadiums, but closed schools. A city that looked the other way whilst a slumlord bought up half the town, one of his buildings eventually being a contributing factor in the deaths of six people when it fell and crushed a neighboring Salvation Army store. The benign and not so benign neglect in the city are just the roots; the top of the tree is, where it’s always been, for decades, in Harrisburg.
It’s about a dysfunctional system that is failing, absolutely failing, the least of us . But the columnist also noted that in 2010, in a wealthy Philadelphia suburban county, a caretaker left her severely disabled charge, Bryan Nevins, to bake to death in a van while she texted and chatted with her boyfriend inside a cool building. For that reckless, wanton neglect, Stacey Strauss is now in jail. How very interesting.
Look at what happened to Avonte Oquendo. The 14-year old boy ran away from his school. Like Christina, he too was learning-disabled and autistic. No one in charge seemed to care. Thousands of people said otherwise and combed New York City looking for him. His remains were found months later, his death determined “inconclusive”, and new information this week has revealed those in the capacity to do more did not. Avonte is dead now too.
I didn’t know it when I discovered the article, thanks to friends who still live in and around Philadelphia, but action is happening, as I’ve learned this morning.
Philadelphia is outraged and horrified. And it should be. We all should be.
Christina’s family has obtained a lawyer—a high powered one. The District Attorney’s office—and city Homicide police—will be investigating. The caregiver has been apparently fired. I am hoping more comes down. Christina’s caregiver, Ayesha Wulu, had exactly one job: Watch Christina. She didn’t do it and now Christina is dead. A woman who was loved by her family and friends. She should not be dead. She should not have frozen to death alone on a West Philadelphia street. And when she died, the agency should not have pretended nothing had gone terribly wrong. The city agency responsible for the oversight of agencies charged to care for those in need should not have waited two weeks to issue a statement. The police and medical examiner’s office should not have just labeled it an accident. The District Attorney’s office should have, at the start, said “this isn’t right.” For one thing, 57th and Master, where Christina’s body was found, is not exactly easy to get to from 13th and Market, where she apparently vanished from. Not by bus or on foot (the Route 10 trolley stop is 4 blocks north—I didn’t look at a map for this. This is a neighborhood I know.) This month of no one taking any kind of responsibility should not have happened. More of the Philadelphia media should have stepped up when Christina's body was discovered and asked "why did a woman freeze to death on our streets?"
As my sister asked when I shared this with her "no one is responsible?"
She lives in Philadelphia and she didn't know about the case until I shared this on facebook.
I’ll be following this in the coming months. I hope Philadelphia is too. This is not something that should just be let go. This isn't just a sad case. This is an outrageous case.
And please read and rec Tool’s diary about autism.