When Tashia came to live with Carl and Arlene Shipley, they knew that her life had been hard and that her death would come too soon--that this 9-year-old girl had AIDS.
But there were things--unspeakable, ghastly details--they did not know.
"She trusted us enough to start telling all these horrible stories," Arlene Shipley said. "And we would have to sit at the dinner table and hear the most horrendous things come out of this child's mouth."
In her short life, Tashia had been neglected by her mother, molested by her mother's boyfriends, physically and emotionally abused. From the time she was 3 years old, officials of the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services heard allegations of her mistreatment.
They investigated each complaint--and then returned the girl to her mother or grandmother, until she was doomed.
In March, Tashia lost her life. She was as much a victim of Florida's bumbling social services bureaucracy as of the deadly virus.
"There was a day when they could have saved her life and it didn't happen," Arlene Shipley said. "This child didn't have to die like this."
In September, 1986, police were called to a domestic disturbance involving Tashia's mother, Rosemary Fisher. A neighbor involved in the complaint told police the child grabbed his penis and said that her mother's boyfriend taught her to do that. But Tashia denied any sexual abuse and the case was closed.
Weeks later, Tashia's mother was accused of giving her little girl to a stranger. Health and Rehabilitative Services placed Tashia in a temporary shelter. A report said she exhibited "inappropriate sexual behavior" by demonstrating sexual intercourse with anatomically correct dolls.
Counseling was ordered. Tashia was returned to her mother with the recommendation that the child not be left in the care of men; a psychological evaluation of Fisher in November of that year found her to be mildly retarded with "very poor parenting skills."
To settle the abandonment case, Tashia was placed with her maternal grandmother in February, 1987. HRS staffers made periodic visits for about a year.
In February, 1988, the HRS determined Tashia had been physically abused, probably by her mother. Although the girl was in her grandmother's care, she often stayed with her mother, reports said.
A year later, Tashia was diagnosed with herpes and gonorrhea. A medical report also noted damage to her hymen and vagina. The HRS concluded she was the victim of "chronic sexual abuse." Later, she was found to have syphilis and venereal warts.
"The police were unable to arrest a suspect for sexual abuse until February, 1992, because of the mother's denials that she left the child alone with any particular men and because of the child's inability to identify a perpetrator," a grand jury report issued in January, 1993, stated.
Levon Bernard King, one of Tashia's mother's boyfriends, was charged with capital sexual battery for assaulting the girl. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison after pleading no contest to a charge of attempted sexual battery.
According to court and police files, Tashia said that King placed his penis on the child's vagina and and lay on top of her. The abuse took place before Christmas, 1991. Tests showed King was not infected with the AIDS virus.
Tashia was diagnosed with AIDS in February, 1992. HRS said she contracted AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases from her mother's boyfriends. Tashia's mother also has been diagnosed with AIDS.
Tashia finally was taken from her mother when a caseworker found Tashia had a fever of 105. Her mother had no plans to seek medical treatment.
Attempts to locate Tashia's mother for this story were unsuccessful. She does not have a telephone. Neither the HRS nor Arlene Shipley could provide an address.
In March, 1992, Tashia--timid, frightened, given to hiding in closets and hoarding food--came to live with the Shipleys, her foster parents.
"They didn't want to give you to us, as a first foster child," Arlene Shipley said in a letter to Tashia, after the child's death. "I told them that you were the child God had chosen for us. Why else would a childless, white couple in their 40s, married 18 years, suddenly decide: 'Gee, we need to take in a discarded, little African-American girl who is dying of AIDS.' "
Because the Shipleys never knew how long Tashia would endure--doctors had predicted she would live four months--they planned a party every month.
Arlene Shipley and Tashia flew to California to visit with Roseanne Arnold and watch a taping of the television show "Roseanne." The Shipleys took Tashia to Disney World and made weekly trips to a restaurant, where Tashia could eat crab legs, her favorite food.
Arlene Shipley proudly spread her photos of Tashia over a monstrous green chair and hassock--Tashia as an angel last Halloween; Tashia sitting on Santa's lap, the first time she recalled celebrating Christmas.
Tammy Anderson, a legal services counselor, recalls spending seven hours fixing "Little Miss Tashia's" hair with beads and dreadlocks before a court-allowed visit with her mother.
"She was a tough little girl. She wanted what she wanted. She prided herself on looking nice. She was a little Southern belle," Anderson said.
For much of the time Tashia was in foster care, she had to take more than 20 medicines daily, including an AIDS drug.
"She couldn't play outside. She couldn't run. She couldn't ride a bike. Physical activity left her tired out," Arlene Shipley said.
"Tashia knew she had a disease she could die of. Toward the end, she knew she had a disease she would die of. But she did not know the name of her disease. All we said was she had bad blood and she accepted that."
Tashia questioned the Shipleys about God and heaven. She decided heaven was like Disney World and God was like Mickey Mouse.
"I told her there was no pain in heaven. She would have a brand-new body in heaven," Arlene Shipley said. "God would protect her and no one ever would hurt her again. And that she could slide down the rainbows."
Her battle with AIDS ended two years to the day that she had moved in with the Shipleys. Tashia died after an unofficial "adoption" ceremony was performed in the hospital to make the Shipleys her mommy and daddy. She was 11 years old.
"She was so afraid that we wouldn't find her in heaven if she wasn't Tashia Shipley.
"I believe Tashia chose to die that night," Arlene Shipley said. "I said, 'Tashia, you know . . . that the minute you want to be in heaven, that you can't take it here anymore because you hurt so bad, all you have to do is ask God and he will take you to heaven.
"I am so grateful for the privilege of having this child in my life."
Four months before Tashia died, First Coast Advocates Inc., a nonprofit agency appointed as Tashia's guardian, filed a lawsuit on her behalf.
"This is a case where a child did not have to die," said Jacksonville attorney S. Grier Wells, who filed a lawsuit against the HRS alleging "negligence in the performance of its duties" in failing to protect the young girl. Any money collected from the lawsuit will go to help other children like Tashia, Wells said.
The agency's handling of Tashia's case led to a grand jury investigation in early 1993. It called the lack of action "inexcusable and shocking."
"Allowing the child to remain unsupervised in the mother's house is analogous to allowing the child to walk a tightrope without a safety net; additional abuse was certain to occur," the grand jury's report said.
As a result of Tashia's case, said Lee Johnson, HRS district administrator, the agency is more responsive and aggressive. Case workers now are required to check prior abuse reports when a new complaint is made. Children are removed more quickly from abusive situations.
"Her life cannot pass without having some meaning," Johnson said. "Her life is a beacon shining a light on the terrible result of child sexual abuse and AIDS."
But Arlene Shipley remains embittered at a system that fumbled the life of a little girl. At one point, in her frustration, she had called Jim Towey, secretary of Health and Rehabilitative Services.
"I want you to come here," she said, "and look this child in the eyes so that when she dies. . . . I know somebody who is part of the system has this child's soul on their conscience."