By Steve Weinstein
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In November, two Columbia graduate journalism students, Molly Messick and Sarah Morgan, interviewed Steven Morales for a story on his experience in foster care. Morales killed himself at Rikers five months later. (See Graham Rayman's "A Short Life Ends on Rikers Island, in a Place Where Suicide Isn't Supposed to Happen," also in this week's Voice .) The Voice asked Messick and Morgan for a write-up of their conversation.
On a day a few weeks after his 18th birthday, Steven Morales sat in a pew in the Rikers Island chapel. Next to him was Javier Solano, the court-appointed defense attorney who would try to prove that Morales was innocent of second-degree murder.
Morales was there because his infant daughter died of suffocation one October night while in his care. The police report described bruises and fingerprints on her scalp, as if she'd been pressed against her mattress.
We were there to talk to Morales about the life he'd had before, the path that had landed him in jail—by his own description, abandoned and alone. It was the day before Thanksgiving. In the six weeks that Morales had been at Rikers, Solano and his co-counsel had been his only visitors.
"Everybody abandoned me, you know?" Morales told us in his only interview following his arrest. "Now I know who is there for me—and it is nobody."
Morales was a slim young man, not tall, swimming in his gray Department of Corrections jumpsuit and shuffling in his standard-issue orange slip-on shoes. His hair was freshly cut. Solano teased him about how short it was, and Morales rubbed his head, bashful.
Then he began telling us his version of his life story, without hesitation or strong emotion. It was a story of neglect and abuse, of a life that moved him from place to place but ultimately gave him few options.
"So, I guess it started out when I was born," Morales said. He described his mother as a crack-addicted prostitute he remembered meeting only once, when he was about 10. He was raised in the Bronx by his father, a Vietnam veteran who owned his own business repairing commercial kitchen appliances. In Morales's words, his father "had a very strong disciplining system."
"He taught me hard lessons," Morales said, "such as not to play with fire." Morales said that once, his father had thrown a burning plastic shower curtain on him, leaving him with third-degree burns. Morales thought he was about four or five when that happened.
"My father, he was never really comprehensive on how to take care of children," Morales said. The city's Administration for Children's Services took Morales away from his father when he was in the first grade, after he arrived at school crying because he'd been beaten.
Morales himself could not reconstruct a precise timeline of the chaotic years that followed. Upon entering New York City's foster-care system, he was taken in by two families for short stays. Within about a year, he was placed with a friend of his father's. She had four daughters of her own, and eventually also took in two of Morales's half-sisters. Morales said this was also an abusive home.
Shortly after this woman adopted Morales in 2004, she sent him to Florida to stay with her eldest daughter. The family—older children first, followed by the younger children with their mother—moved from Florida to the Dominican Republic and then to Spain.
"I never really had friends from my childhood," Morales said. "There was not enough time to make friends . . . we were always moving."
In Madrid, Morales met the future mother of his child in a club. Although they were never married, he referred to her as his wife because he had planned to marry her. After a fight with his adoptive mother, the young couple wound up living on the streets, bathing in public showers. Morales was earning 28 euros a day handing out flyers.
"It was harder for her because she was pregnant at the time, and we were still on the streets," Morales said. "It was winter. I had to take off my jacket sometimes and give it to her."
Their daughter was born in June 2007, and they named her Sophia. The young family moved to New York in September, renting a room on Lebanon Street in the Bronx. Morales thought things were going well: His girlfriend had a job in a New Jersey nightclub; he'd applied for health care for his daughter.
"Everything I did, it was always for my daughter," he said. He'd set his sights on a house nearby that he hoped to buy and fix up so he could pass it on to his daughter someday. "Like, if we die, our daughter's going to have something sure," he said.
And then his daughter stopped breathing, and everything changed.
His lawyer, Solano, had made efforts to contact his client's family and friends, none of whom responded. Morales's girlfriend had gone back to Spain, although he thought she might come back when he went to trial.
Solano said Morales seemed not quite to understand the situation he was facing.
"He asks questions like, 'When do you think I'm going to get out of here?' " Solano said in a separate interview. "When you ask questions like that, I don't think you fully comprehend—'Listen, you might never get out of here.'