Day after day, the story became more heartbreaking.
Two young boys -- half-starved and filthy -- were found Saturday under a bed in a Newark, N.J., basement. The next day, police discovered the decomposed body of their brother, 7-year-old Faheem Williams, in a plastic storage container in the same basement.
Then the news came out that the state agencies charged with protecting children had closed this family's case a year ago, despite multiple reports of suspected abuse.
Early Thursday morning, five days after the boys were found, police arrested Sherry Murphy, 41, an exotic dancer who had been entrusted with the care of the children almost a year ago, when their mother, Murphy's cousin, was sent to jail on child endangerment charges.
Officials in New Jersey hope Murphy's arrest will bring the gruesome tale to closure.
"It was out of control," Micah Rasmussen, press secretary for New Jersey Gov. James E. McGreevey, said Thursday. "I don't think it's out of control now."
The two surviving brothers -- the dead boy's twin, Raheem Williams, 7, and Tyrone Hill, 4 -- are recovering in the hospital. The social workers responsible for closing their case have been suspended. And the state agency is conducting a thorough review to make sure other abuse charges are properly investigated, Rasmussen said.
But child advocates say the case shows the extreme consequences of troubled child welfare systems across the country that let thousands of children fall through the cracks.
"This is a horror story, but it's not an unprecedented horror story," said Carole Shauffer, executive director of the Youth Law Center, a national public interest law firm based in San Francisco. "It is unusual for kids to be killed; that is an egregious situation. But all child welfare systems are troubled. Some are more troubled than others."
MaryLee Allen, child welfare director of the Children's Defense Fund, said, "Child welfare systems across the country are operating on overload -- too many children, not enough resources, untrained staff. This creates an overload on the system and makes it more likely that tragedies like these will happen."
Many questions remain about the lives of Faheem Williams and his brothers, but the facts uncovered so far suggest that they suffered through the worst kind of real-life nightmare.
The three brothers were so seriously neglected that one of them appears to have starved to death. (The results of his autopsy have not been released.)
In yet another twist, the boys' mother, Melinda Williams, 31, reportedly was in critical condition at another hospital after being hit by a car. She told authorities that she had been unable to find Murphy or her children after being released from jail several months ago. When she heard the news that her children had been found, she said, she was struck while racing to the hospital in hopes of being reunited with the boys.
Newark Mayor Sharpe James, whose community has been deeply disturbed by the story, calls it "an American tragedy."
"It's like a hydra that keeps growing arms," said Pamela Goldstein, his press secretary, referring to the mythic nine-headed serpent slain by Hercules. "It's a very horrible case. It's a very shocking case; it has gripped this nation."
State and local officials say that about a year ago, when she was jailed on charges of child endangerment, Williams entrusted the children to Murphy.
The two surviving boys were found Saturday when Murphy's boyfriend went to the basement in search of his boots and discovered a locked room. He called police.
Police officers did not know about the third child until the next day when, during an interview at the hospital, Raheem told them he had a brother whom he had not seen for some time.
In looking into the case, authorities found a 10-year history of complaints of child abuse and neglect against Williams. The most recent, in October 2001, accused her of beating and burning her children.
Nonetheless, her caseworker closed the family's case early last year, even though she had not interviewed the children -- a move approved by the caseworker's supervisor. Both have been suspended and are being punished, said Rasmussen, the governor's press secretary.
"It's not as if the system did not have checks and balances in place to prevent such tragedies," Rasmussen said. "In this case the checks and balances were not followed."
McGreevey directed the state's human services commissioner, Gwendolyn L. Harris, to give him a thorough report today on what went wrong.
This week, Harris admitted that the system had failed. In an effort to avoid similar tragedies, she declared a "state of emergency" in the agency and ordered caseworkers to track down every instance in which children had not been interviewed despite accusations of abuse.
There are 280 such cases across the state, according to Joseph Delmar, a spokesman for the state Division of Youth and Family Services.
Child welfare advocates in New Jersey said the tragedy points to systemic problems.
"The most basic mandate of a child protection agency is to respond to allegations of abuse," said Cecilia Zalkind, executive director of the Assn. for Children of New Jersey. "What's shocking about this case is that it strikes at the heart of the basics that we want all children to have -- food, shelter, nurturing and to have their safety ensured. That did not happen in a very tragic way for these children."
James, the Newark mayor, said most of the blame belongs to the children's mother and other relatives.
He was angered by interviews on local television of relatives of the boys complaining that authorities were preventing them from visiting the children in the hospital.
"They had seven years to see the children," he said.
He also expressed frustration with a man who called him from Vermont several days ago, claiming that the 4-year-old was his son.
"I'm still shocked that three days ago a father called to tell me, 'That's my son,' but he's yet to get on a bus, train or plane," James said.
The father and son share the same name, Tyrone Hill, the mayor said.
James visited the boys twice and said they were delighted with the toys he brought them, especially a red sports car.
"When I brought the toys they jumped up and down, clapping their hands," he said.
A hospital social worker told the mayor that when the governor gave Raheem a stuffed white tiger, the boy asked: "Will this tiger protect me from that woman?"
"That's why I'm glad we caught that woman," James added.
Murphy was arrested without incident after an informant led police to her. She was not immediately charged because she complained of dizziness and was taken to a hospital, where she was examined and released, officials said. She is likely to be arraigned today, they said.
The boys are under the guardianship of the state.