Page last updated at 14:22 GMT, Thursday, 10 April 2008 15:22 UK

Child death raises tough questions

By Gary Duffy
BBC News, Sao Paulo

In a country such as Brazil, which lives with high levels of crime and violence, it usually takes a particularly shocking event to have an impact across the country.

Magazine headlines on Isabella's story
Some experts believe extensive media coverage has led to copycat cases
The tragic death of five-year-old Isabella de Oliveira Nardoni is one such case.

For days the crime has been grabbing headlines in all the main Brazilian papers, leading the front pages of the weekly news magazines, and taking up hours of television reports.

It initially appeared that the little girl was thrown to her death from the sixth floor apartment in Sao Paulo belonging to her father and stepmother, where she had been spending the weekend.

However, preliminary tests indicated that she may also have been strangled beforehand, and suffered other injuries.

Blood was found in the apartment and there was a hole in the wire safety netting that covered the window. She died just a few minutes after being discovered.

'Inexplicable act'

"The unacceptable death of Isabella," proclaimed the headline on a report from the weekly news magazine Istoe.

"Extroverted, lively and gracious, Isabella de Oliveira Nardoni, aged five, was the centre of attention at family reunions," it said.

The case has prompted Brazilians to reflect on the kind of cruelty that adults seem capable of inflicting on children

Isabella wanted to be a ballerina, the magazine reported.

"How did someone commit an inexplicable act like this?" asked the magazine Epoca.

Her father Alexandre, 29, says he believes that his daughter was killed by an intruder, while he was helping his wife bring their other children from their car in the garage in the basement of the building.

However, both he and his wife Anna Carolina Jatoba have been held by police for questioning over the death.

Whoever was responsible for Isabella's death, the case has prompted Brazilians to reflect on the kind of cruelty that adults seem capable of inflicting on children.

Only last month police here filed charges against 49-year-old businesswoman Silvia Calabresi, who is accused of torturing a 12-year-old girl.

When police in the city of Goiania found the girl she was handcuffed to a staircase and showing signs of torture and ill-treatment.

Ms Calabresi later said in a television interview that she didn't think she was torturing the child but was "educating" her.

Greater awareness

Brazil is not alone in dealing with the consequences of extreme acts of violence against the most vulnerable members of society, and there are indications of some worrying trends.

Ivonise Fernandes da Motta
The risk is that if we become used to this type of event I think we lose a very valuable part of our humanity
Ivonise Fernandes da Motta
Psychology professor

Research carried out by the University of Sao Paulo showed that domestic violence against children had risen by 75% in the first years of this century.

Professor Ivonise Fernandes da Motta of the Department of Clinical Psychology at the University of Sao Paulo, says this increase may be explained by the greater awareness in society, and a willingness to report what has happened to the authorities.

She also highlights the speed and sometimes sensationalist nature of reports in the media as a reason why society is much more conscious of this kind of crime. Even so, she says, such cruelty still has the capacity to shock Brazilian society.

"We have indications that this is increasing and there is a danger that situations like this will become more common. The risk is that if we become used to this type of event I think we lose a very valuable part of our humanity," she warned.

One expert from a referral centre of Victims of Violence in the Institute of Sedes Sapientae in Sao Paulo says the greater awareness may have led to others copying particular acts of cruelty.

The violence is of different types and becoming more specific and more sophisticated, says general co-ordinator Dalka Chaves de Almeida Ferrari.

"If a crime happens of a particular type in another place and it is exposed in the media, then in one or two weeks something similar will happen here," she says.

"I think that this communication - which is much more direct today - ends up freeing people who wish to participate in some violence, that have a wish to do something.

"Related to the case of this girl [Isabella] you see how many similar cases have emerged," she said.

Far from unique

In one case since Isabella's death a baby was thrown out of a window in a house in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, and is being treated in hospital.

But it is also the cases which do not always make the headlines which worry those who work in this area.

"I think violence which ends up in death always shocks, but I think the violence that is more psychological, which happens every day and decreases the self-esteem of children or uses physical discipline still needs to change a lot in Brazil," says Dalka de Almeida Ferrari.

While the exact circumstances of Isabella de Oliveira Nardoni's death remain uncertain, part of the enormous tragedy of her story is that it is far from unique.

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