The Troubling Similarities Between Jhessye Shockley’s Disappearance and a 1997 Philadelphia Case

What Women Really Think
Nov. 25 2011 12:20 AM

The Troubling Similarities Between Jhessye Shockley’s Disappearance and a 1997 Philadelphia Case

Earlier this week, we learned that authorities believe Jhessye Shockley, a 5-year-old Arizona girl who has been missing since mid-October, is no longer alive. (Note: Her name has also been spelled Jahessye, but I'm going with the local Arizona media spelling, which is likely the accurate one.) Though Jhessye went missing about the same time as “Baby Lisa,” the cases were treated very differently in the media: There was extensive national coverage of Lisa Irwin’s disappearance, while Jhessye’s was largely overlooked. The Irwin family is white, while Jhessye is (or, as the sad case appears to be, was) African-American.

Now the story of the little girl whose disappearance didn’t inspire a national outcry grows even sadder. The Associated Press reports that Jhessye’s 13-year-old sister, who was placed in foster care soon after the 5-year-old’s disappearance, has shared with Child Protective Services some troubling information. The teen “told police that [her mother Jerice Hunter] kept Jhessye in a bedroom closet and deprived her of food and water, and that she had seen the girl with black eyes and bruises and cuts to her face and body,” says the AP, quoting a probable cause statement.

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These allegations reminded me of a similar terrible tale from Philadelphia. In 1997, the body a 5-year-old girl, Charnae Wise, was discovered in a basement. As Shankar Vedantam chronicled in an exhaustive report for the Philadelphia Inquirer, The girl’s mother, Charlene Wise, struggled with drug addiction and lost custody of her six children soon after Charnae’s birth. Slowly, she regained custody of the six kids, but she was overwhelmed, telling a social worker she couldn’t care for them all. “You either take them now or we put them up for adoption,” Wise was reportedly told. So she took them.

The two youngest—Charnae and her year-older brother, Dante—were a handful; Wise particularly resented that they interrupted her when she wanted to use crack cocaine. So she began locking the pair in the basement for long stretches of time, sometimes leaving them food at the top of the stairs, sometimes not. Eventually, she allowed Dante to emerge from the basement, but down there Charnae stayed. “The balance tipped noiselessly: Charnae wasn't being put in the basement now and then. She was being let out now and then,” Vedantam wrote in the Inquirer. Eventually, she died, presumably of starvation. Soon after, the Wise family moved out. Charlene Wise told her oldest daughter, who was worried about Charnae, that the little girl had been adopted, that she was elsewhere, before finally confessing what had happened. It was only then that police discovered the small body wrapped up and hidden beneath the basement stairs.

As is apparently the case with Jhessye Shockley’s story, the Wise family had extensive dealings with child services. But the system failed to keep the children safe. 

Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a project of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State that looks at the implications of new technologies.