Aliyah Marie Branum spent much of her two years alive either homeless, living in a tent or a shed — and being cursed at, neglected and beaten.
Aliyah was born with several disabilities, and her right eye was deformed and turning inward toward her brain — a condition her mother knew was serious but failed to treat. Her caregivers often didn’t bother to change her diapers, resulting in rashes and bleeding.
Through it all, Aliyah’s mother was witnessed, time and time again, spewing hateful profanities at her.
The toddler couldn’t defend herself or ask for help. She could not tell authorities who had left the bruises on her upper thigh this past January. And, when a team of child abuse experts asked her mother, Chelsea Maree Huggett — a woman with admitted severe anger issues — about the injury, she exploded: “Are you accusing me of abusing my child?”
In fact, though there was mounting evidence that Aliyah was in grave danger with a mother who’d already also been accused of smothering and striking her “really hard” in a public office, state child welfare authorities never considered Huggett an abuser.
That changed on April 26, when the child was pronounced dead from a vicious beating that, in many ways, seemed inevitable. In her death, the little girl with the wisps of blond hair and a penchant for looking pretty in pink joined a tragic cluster of children who had histories with the state child protection agency before they were killed.
At least 20 children have died since mid-April in a deadly summer of abuse and neglect for Florida’s children. The carnage cost then-DCF Secretary David Wilkins his job last month, and prompted a “town hall” meeting among lawmakers from three South Florida counties this coming Tuesday.
Aliyah’s last hours were particularly brutal: A “multitude of bruises, marks and other injuries” pocked the girl’s body, police said. Her face was puffy; her left eye swollen “completely shut.” Aliyah’s brain was bleeding, and blood oozed from her nose and both ears. Aliyah had injuries to her forehead, cheeks, lips, head, shoulders, pelvic area and back.
Cause of death: blunt force trauma. The alleged killer: Huggett, the mother who had her daughter’s name and birthday tattooed across her chest.
“This is a woman who could have cried out for help,” said Citrus County Sheriff Jeffrey Dawsy. “She could have cried out for help. There are enough social services out there. She brutally murdered her daughter.”
Huggett was charged was first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse, and is awaiting trial in jail.
She told police she threw the toddler against a wall for “whining.”
Records obtained by the Miami Herald under Florida’s public records law show Huggett had left a long trail of clues suggesting that a toxic mixture of post traumatic stress disorder — a vestige of her service in the military — a chemical imbalance that left her explosively angry, and her inability to cope with a needy and fussy child would likely combust into tragedy.
The clues, records show, all were overlooked.
Aliyah’s death shook the small Central Florida town of Hernando. An unidentified friend or family member created a page in memory of Aliyah on Facebook, and posts photos of the little girl almost weekly — along with heart-rending messages: “Thoughts are with you today sweet angel Aliyah,” from last week, or “God has you safe in His keeping…We have you forever in our hearts” from late July.