If you were to ask an 8-year-old girl where she felt safest, she might say it was her diary. It’s difficult to imagine a setting more innocent than a little girl’s diary. Gizzell Ford, 8, of Chicago was one such little girl. An A-student and spelling bee winner, “Gizzy,” as she was known, wrote the details of her days in a little rainbow striped diary.
“I am going to be a beautiful smart and good young lady. I can do anything I put my mind to,” she wrote in the summer of 2013. The confidence radiates just from that one line. But as you read on to the next entry, it becomes clear that what Gizzy was recording in her diary was a world filled with violence and abuse.
“I know if I be good and do everything I’m told I won’t have to do punishments.”
“I hope I don’t mess up today because I really want to be able to just sit down watch T.V. talk and play with everybody. I am going to be great all day.
“Not true. I failed.”
During the summer of 2013, Gizzy endured severe maltreatment at the hands of her paternal grandmother, Helen Ford, 55, directed by her bed-ridden father, Andre Ford. This abuse occurred over the course of eight months, becoming increasingly grievous until it eventually led to Gizzell’s murder.
On July 11, 2013, Gizzy wrote her final diary entry: “I hate this life because now I’m in super big trouble.”
The following day, Gizzy was found dead in Helen’s refuse and vermin-filled apartment. She had been beaten, bound, and strangled. She was so badly beaten that the hair on the back of her head as been ripped out, exposing a wound infected with maggots.
After investigating cellphone footage shot by Andre, investigators determined that Gizzy had been tortured to death by her grandmother. Two videos in particular detail some of this abuse.
“She’s getting defiant,” Andre yells in the video, “Stand up! Do your squats!”
“You see how she’s acting?” Helen states, “She lies about every single thing.”
Squats appeared to be the punishment Gizzy writes about in her diary. In the second video, Helen berates a gagged Gizzy for having “made herself throw up” to avoid these squats. Gizzy was gagged with a grubby sock.
Court testimonies also state that Gizzy was denied food and water, bound to her father’s bed for days on end. She was also allegedly punished for attempting to sneak a drink of water from the toilet.
The abuse doesn’t end there. According to Gizzy’s younger half-brother’s testimony, he had witnessed Helen use a spatula or a belt when striking Gizzy whenever she complained or cried, forced her to eat hot peppers, and balance on one foot for lengthy periods of time. It was no wonder that Gizzy wrote about her excitement to start the fourth grade, and escape this abuse.
Like mother, like son, both Helen and Andre were charged for Gizzy’s murder. While awaiting trial for his daughter’s murder, Andre died in Cook County Jail of a heart attack. On March 2, 2017, Helen Ford was found guilty of first-degree murder in the death of her granddaughter.
“This murder was torture. That child suffered a slow and agonizing death,” Cook County Circuit Judge Evelyn Clay said in court. “That little body looked like it had been pulverized from head to toe. Her treatment [of Gizzy] was evil.”
It was Gizzy’s diary entries that sealed Helen’s fate behind bars. Her haunting words are what proved to a jury, beyond a reasonable doubt, was beaten, bound, and strangled to death by her own grandmother.
Gizzy’s murder was a preventable one. To put it simply, she was let down by the legal system designed to protect children just like her. Like many children in America, Gizzy was the subject of a custody dispute. In court, Andre had argued that Gizzy’s mother was homeless and unable to get the kids to school on time. A judge ruled in his favor.
A month before Gizzy’s death, A Department of Children and Family Services investigator visited Helen Ford’s trash-strewn home but took no action. The department, under the direction of George Sheldon, has made efforts to intervene in the lives of troubled families much sooner.
A lawsuit has been filed against DCFS in the wrongful death of Gizzy Ford. The lawsuit alleges that the DCFS “acting by and through its agents, employees … had a duty to refrain from conduct exhibiting a reckless or intentional disregard for the safety of others, including plaintiff’s decedent, Gizzell Ford.”
Gizzy’s first and second-grade teacher, Kathryn Wanicek, spoke highly of her student, “Gizzell was one of those who I knew would make a difference in the world … maybe as a teacher or writer.”