On Easter Sunday, two fishermen on their way to Jamaica Bay came upon a macabre scene. In a vacant lot near the bay’s entrance they found the corpse of Tiffany Stewart, wrapped in a plastic bag.
The 16-year-old girl had been in the care of the city’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) for slightly more than two years and was a resident of the nearby Hegeman Transitional Center, a group home in East New York, until three weeks before she was murdered.
City Limits readers met Stewart in the November 1998 story “Nobody’s Homes,” about the failure of Hegeman and other ACS-run group homes to adequately supervise, support or engage the teenagers in their care. Under the pseudonym “Caryn,” Stewart said that she lived in the group home because she and her mother couldn’t get along.
The petite teenager spent most of her time at Hegeman hanging out on the corner in front of the home, smoking marijuana and partying with other residents and local men. School was a distant memory; her own child, a two-year-old boy, was being raised by an aunt in Arizona. Stewart’s life was wild, but it wasn’t fun. “Right now,” Stewart asserted last summer, “I’m trying to get the hell out of Hegeman.”
The details of Tiffany Stewart’s death are still murky, but some facts are known. On April 3, around 11 at night, she was strangled to death near an underpass. Police records indicate that at least three people acted together to kill Stewart, although so far only one, 16-year-old Amanda Gonzalez, has been charged. Allegedly, Gonzalez acted as a lookout while another person struck Stewart in the head and a third strangled her; Gonzalez then helped dispose of Stewart’s body. She has been indicted for second-degree murder.
ACS spokesperson Leonora Weiner will not disclose any details about Stewart’s history or the ongoing murder investigation but did acknowledge that her death was not unique. “Foster teens have died outside group homes before,” Weiner says.
Little changed for Stewart between last summer and March 12 of this year, when she was moved to a group home in Queens for reasons ACS has refused to disclose. By all accounts, Stewart had not been in her new group home long enough to get close to the other girls and was unhappy there.
“She was never there,” says Irene (not her real name), a resident of the Queens home. According to Irene, Stewart usually came in around 2 a.m. during the week and was not there at all on weekends. When house parents reminded Stewart of a 10 p.m. curfew, she reportedly answered that she stayed out late because she worked nights.
Although Stewart’s new group home in Queens was in a better neighborhood than Hegeman, the conditions inside the home were not much different. As at Hegeman, there was not much for the 12 residents, ages 15 to 19, to do with their time.
That has been changing. “After Tiffany died, a couple of interesting things happened,” says Irene. Three new computers and stacks of board games appeared in the home immediately following her death. The girls were also taken horseback riding.
ACS considered Stewart a “frequent AWOL-er” who chronically stayed out without permission from group home staff, according to Weiner. But the agency never went to court to request an arrest warrant to get Stewart returned to the group home, says Stewart’s Legal Aid lawyer, Jonathan Roman.
For Stewart, the only alternative to hanging out on East New York’s streets was staying inside watching television, which she had too much energy to do. Even as she was being interviewed, she would frequently interrupt the conversation to dart across the street and greet people passing by, calling many by name as she ran to them.
She was socially sophisticated enough to remember the names of everyone she met, including her lawyer’s and judge’s. Yet for all of her savvy, Stewart was still a 16-year-old child who, tragically, needed more attention and guidance than New York’s child welfare system gave her.
Wendy Davis is editor of Manhattan Spirit.