As Alicia and LaReine Nixon spoke of the events that led to the death of 6-year-old Khalil Wimes, allegedly at the hands of his parents, the anger and pain was clearly evident in their voices and etched into their faces.
No, that’s not an adequate description of what they’re living with. A better description would be to call it rage, a smoldering rage not just for Tina Cuffie and Floyd Wimes, the parents who allegedly beat and starved their child to death, but rage towards the Department of Human Services and the courts – the system that was supposed to protect Khalil but that, in their opinion, failed.
Now they want answers.
Alicia Nixon was Khalil’s foster mother, in effect the only woman he knew as his mother, who cared for and loved the little boy for the first three years of his life from the time he was born. LaReine Nixon is Alicia Nixon’s mother, an artist, whom Khalil knew as “Mimi” his grandmother. Both of them expressed their concern over allegations that the DHS worker assigned to Khalil’s case failed to report and act upon clearly visible signs of physical abuse.
At the preliminary hearing for Wimes and Cuffie, Assistant Medical Examiner Aaron Rosen stated that Khalil, who was pronounced dead on March 19, had 15 visible scars on his face.
“During the preliminary hearing the medical examine took over an hour to describe the scars and bruises that covered Khalil’s body,” Alicia Nixon said, on the verge of tears. “How could someone, especially a trained social worker, see signs of that kind of abuse and do nothing? I can’t get my mind around that. It came out in court that he was sleeping on a filthy mattress and they locked his bedroom. I want everyone who laid eyes on him and did nothing to pay for this. I want the people who are in charge of them to pay.”
According to investigators, during the last eight weeks of his life, while the child was still under DHS supervision, Khalil slept on a soiled mattress on the floor of an empty bedroom.
The worker, who has since been placed on desk duty pending the investigation, allegedly visited the apartment and saw Khalil just two weeks before his death. Investigators said Cuffie allegedly physically punished Khalil everyday. Sometimes she used a belt, other times she allegedly made him stand in a corner and threw books or shoes at him.
“I can’t get out of my mind that Khalil suffered for a thousand days in one form or another,” Larine Nixon said. “Based on the decisions that the judges made to allow his parents to have Khalil – knowing their history of neglect and abuse with their other children, their history of drug abuse, there’s no rhyme or reason. Judges have a lot of discretion in these cases and we pleaded with them not to allow the parents to have custody. We did everything legally possible and they still did it and look what happened.”
Cuffie, 44, and her husband, Wimes, 48, are being held on charges of first-degree murder, aggravated assault, conspiracy to commit murder, endangering the welfare of a child and related offenses.
According to investigators, the defendants drove Khalil to Children’s Hospital because he was ill. Hospital attendants immediately saw the boy’s physical condition and called police. He weighed 25 pounds when he died from blunt force trauma and malnutrition.
“I can’t get out of my mind that Khalil was with people who hurt him and all the while he knew that somewhere out there were people who loved him,” Larine Nixon said. “From the time he was born we raised him and loved him. The courts gave him back to his parents and they killed him.”
Because of confidentiality laws and the ongoing investigation, DHS officials are unable to comment on Khalil’s case.
However, the independent Child Welfare Review panel has already reviewed the case and the agency is awaiting its recommendations.
“Whenever there’s an open case of a child dying under DHS care we immediately pull all of the records associated with the case,” said DHS spokesperson Alicia Taylor. “All of the records are reviewed from the case worker to the supervisor.”
During her testimony before the Task Force on Child Protection Hearing held at the University of Pennsylvania on April 18, DHS Commissioner Anne Marie Ambrose voiced her concerns regarding clarity in the Child Protective Services Law and that it is difficult to determine whether all of the reforms implemented by DHS over the last four years have made a difference.
“Are children really safer? The lack of data on GPS (general protective services) cases and the inability to compare us to other jurisdictions makes this most important question difficult to answer,” Ambrose said. “Another area of concern involves Act 33 and its requirement for review of all fatalities and near fatalities caused as a result of child abuse. DHS has embraced the new requirement regarding fatalities and near fatalities and I am proud to report that the DHS Act 33 Child Fatality/Near Fatality Review Team has served as a state model for effective interdisciplinary and interagency coordination in examining child fatalities and near fatalities and for identifying and monitoring the implementation of recommendations to improve child safety.”
LaReine Nixon said her family has been devastated by Khalil’s killing and they are awaiting the parent’s trial.
“It was his biological father and mother who murdered him,” Nixon said. “Khalil didn’t know anything about the term foster parents. To him, Alicia was his mother; he really didn’t know his biological parents. I was his ‘Mimi,’ my family were his uncles and aunts and cousins. We were not just outsiders, we were related to him. Our little boy was tortured and murdered.”
Philadelphia’s Overbrook section is home to a place where art comes alive on the canvas.
As an artist and the owner of Philadelphia Framing and Fine Art, LaReine Nixon views her work as way to share stories with others.
“The writer writes the story and the painter tells the story. What I like is being able to have a story that I want to tell. I’m able to, in a visual way, take some sources and put it all together on a canvas and say something that has some significance. I can paint something that will make you think,” says the 54-year-old artist.
The gallery, located at 61st and Lancaster Avenue, houses Nixon’s vibrant, signature pastels in addition to paintings and sculptures by other artists.
When customers come into the gallery to browse, Nixon encourages them to purchase a piece of art that elicits a response.
“It’s the piece that you’re affected by, tugs at your heartstrings, reminds you of something, makes you feel something — that’s what you ought to buy,” she advises.
Throughout her seven years as an artist, Nixon has painted about 300 pieces and a dozen book covers.
Nixon’s favorite piece is her first published work titled, “Not for Sale.” The painting depicts a little Black girl with blond locks and bright blue eyes who is peering out from behind of the American flag. To the girl’s right is a replica of a poster advertising slaves slated to be sold. The piece is one of Nixon’s top sellers.
“The most challenging (thing) is having people understand what art is — and that it’s not decoration. It’s not an accessory like pillows and drapes. It’s consciousness. It’s history. It’s culture,” Nixon says of art.
“Whoever is telling the story through visual arts, it’s usually going to reflect the history and culture and consciousness of that person.”
During her 20 years in the art world, Nixon endured challenges as she moved her business to various locations throughout West Philadelphia.
Nixon’s foray into the art business came in 1992 after she was laid off from her job as a fundraiser for New Jersey-based nonprofit agency. With the assistance of a friend who owned a framing shop, Nixon quickly learned framing techniques. Armed with an inventory of framed prints, Nixon became an outdoor art vendor on the 52nd Street corridor.
“I averaged about $800–$900 a week selling art on a corridor where sneakers were the order of the day, but because people were exposed to the art, they bought it,” says Nixon.
Two years later, she relocated to empty lot at 49th and Market and ended up turning the site into an open-air fine art gallery.
After two years of solid sales, the 49th Street Art Gallery and Custom Framing was impacted by SEPTA’s reconstruction project of the Market-Frankford Elevated Line.
When the 10-year construction project caused the intersection near Nixon’s location to be closed off, customers couldn’t get to the gallery and sales dwindled. Nixon was in for a struggle that would leave her business on life support.
“It was just sheer determination and the will to stay put and to stay in business. I do not know how I managed. I know that for eight years it was a nightmare,” recalled the West Philadelphia native.
When things had gotten to the point where Nixon could not afford to restock her inventory, she opted to produce and sell her own work. In 2005, the self-taught artist started doing oil paintings and then switched to pastels.
“Literally, if I had not started to produce work, I would have been out of business,” she admitted.
Nixon’s efforts paid off, and she became a noted portrait artist. In 2007, she was featured in Jet magazine as the “Portrait to the Stars” after her pastel of R&B singer Gerald Levert took center stage during his memorial service.
Now Nixon is preparing to launch her newest venture — Khalil’s Place, a new restaurant named in memory of her 6-year-old foster grandson, Khalil Wimes. Wimes died in March of malnutrition and abuse.
Slated to open this summer at 43rd and Ludlow streets, Khalil’s Place will offer a healthier take on traditional breakfast and lunch offerings. Nixon looks forward to serving up what she bills as the best breakfast and lunch in Philly.
“That’s not just an advertising or marketing ploy. I really care about the food and the food supply. We’re not just opening up a restaurant to sell food to people,” Nixon added.