This past June, 26-year-old Laderika Smith left her 5-year-old daughter, Brandajah, home alone while she went to the store to purchase milk. Upon her return, Smith found Brandajah lying on the bedroom floor with a gunshot wound to the head. Apparently the child found a gun in the closet, belonging to the man they were staying with. Brandajah was transported to a local New Orleans hospital where she died. Smith was later charged with second-degree murder.
One element that has emerged in this case is the possibility that 5-year-old Brandajah intentionally killed herself. In a recent post for The Root, Janell Ross writes about Brandajah’s short and troubled life:
Brandajah frequently moved with her mother and 8-year-old sister, couch surfing at the homes of family and friends, a relative told The Root on condition of anonymity. On more than one occasion, Smith spent time in jail after arrests for prostitution, theft and failures to appear in court or pay required fines, according to public records. (Smith’s court-appointed lawyer declined to comment when contacted by The Root because Smith’s case is pending.)
Living with such turmoil may have been too much for Brandajah.
At John Dilbert Community School, teachers and counselors filled the little girl’s school records with alarming details. Information shared by Brandon Pierre, the girl’s father, indicates that the school contacted state child-welfare officials multiple times. The school believed that the little girl was being sexually abused. And there was something else.
“She had expressed suicidal ideations to a school counselor,” says Orleans Parish Assistant District Attorney Christopher Bowman, who serves as a spokesman for the area prosecutor’s office. “She was apparently very, very close to her 8-year-old sister and apparently asked, ‘If I kill myself, will I still see my sister?’ ”
According to school records, officials at John Dilbert were so nervous, they assigned a school aide to shadow Brandajah. The aide’s job: never leave the 5-year-old alone, not even for a trip to the bathroom, according to Bowman. (The school’s principal did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
Prosecutors allege that Brandajah’s mother was well-aware of the school’s concerns. School records indicate that the mother had been warned that staying with her cousin — a felon who has since been charged with illegal possession of a gun — simply was not safe.
Pierre says that he was unaware of Brandajah’s troubles at school; he says no one shared the information in the school files with him until after his daughter’s death. He also says that he did not see his daughter as often as he would have because his relationship with her mother was strained.
“Reading some of the things in that [school] file, they made my stomach turn,” he says. “I had no idea all of this was going on. But I wish to God that I had.”
If suicide is the actual case with Brandajah, several people dropped the ball on this little girl. Including her own mother.
But can a child that young know the actual consequences of death and suicide?
The idea that a child as young as 5 might be suicidal is difficult to fathom, says Dr. Charles Zeanah Jr., vice chair of child and adolescent psychiatry at Tulane University. But children facing severe difficulties such as physical or sexual abuse, instability or violence in their home and other traumatic conditions can indeed feel a desire to harm themselves or even die, says Zeanah.
Suicide among preschool and even elementary-school-age children is, thankfully, extremely rare, he says. But warning signs should never be ignored. Children as young as Brandajah do not truly understand the permanency of death, Zeanah says. Nor can they grasp the real meaning of a fatal injury.
“There are two dangers in a case like this,” says Zeanah. “One is that we dismiss it and think, ‘Oh, young children can’t be that troubled. They can’t actually be depressed.’ The other is that we assume that a 5- or 6-year-old is capable of understanding suicide the same way as a 35- or 40-year-old.”
As far as Smith’s role in her daughter’s death, she’s currently facing life in prison.