Mommie dearest

Children's bed sheets hang in the windows of what was once Cedric Lamont Seamster's home on North Hamilton Street, their cartoon characters smiling into empty rooms. A child's deflated swimming pool and plastic beach toys are scattered on the dirt and grass alongside the house. An air of loss hangs about the place.

A large woven basket filled with faded silk flowers sits on the porch above a banner that reads "HAPPY BIRTHDAY." A small, faded note taped to the bedroom window bears the words "God Bless You Cedric" in a child's sloppy scrawl. Had he lived to see the day, Cedric would have celebrated his second birthday on June 14. Instead, his grandmother and two of his aunts put the decorations up in remembrance of the boy, who died at Children's Medical Center on June 11.

That same day, Cedric's mother, 25-year-old Sheryleen Berryman, was arrested and charged with child abandonment. Police allege that on June 2, Berryman left her five children -- ages 6, 4, 3, 1, and 11 months -- in the care of her 11-year-old sister, in town for a brief visit, while Berryman spent the night with her boyfriend.

Police and prosecutors call what Berryman did a crime. They say that she left her children virtually unsupervised in a house with no electricity or running water, that her children had no clean clothes or shoes.

But from her current home at the Dallas County jail, Sheryleen Berryman can't seem to grasp why anyone would think she is a bad mother.

"I take care of my kids," Berryman told the Dallas Observer in her first interview since being arrested in June.

Not anymore. Her four remaining children have been placed in foster care by the state. And her 11-year-old sister is at the county juvenile detention center, accused of beating Cedric to death. Police say the girl confessed that she struck Cedric and whipped him with a cord when he would not stop crying.

That, say the 11-year-old's sister and their mother, Cheryl Jackson of Hallsville, is unbelievable. Family members and friends who know the 11-year-old say she loved her nieces and nephews. They describe her as a gentle, churchgoing girl who had baby-sat for Berryman before and had never shown any hint of violence.

Cedric's family suspects that a 27-year-old male cousin -- who claims he peered through a window, saw that Cedric was injured, and called an ambulance -- beat the boy. Berryman and Jackson say that police coerced the 11-year-old into confessing to a crime that she did not commit.

"I was at work, and Sheryleen's girlfriend called me around 10 a.m. and told me what had happened," Jackson says. "My daughters and I were in Dallas by about 1 o'clock. I went to the hospital to check on Cedric, and then I called the police about my child. Somebody gave me the number to the detectives. They told me that they would call me back."

Nearly eight hours would pass before Jackson or any family member was allowed to see the girl.

Jackson says that when she was finally allowed to see her youngest daughter, the girl was crying and "looked scared to death." Her daughter told Jackson that police said she could go home if she signed some papers. Now Jackson fears she may have signed away her life.

Since Cedric's beating, Cheryl Jackson has driven the two hours from Hallsville to Dallas several times each week to visit her daughters. Outside of court hearings, Jackson says that she has only been allowed to visit with her youngest daughter for 15 minutes a day. Jackson gets longer visits at the county jail with her eldest daughter, Berryman, who is awaiting trial on two counts of child abandonment.

A court will eventually decide whether Berryman and her 11-year-old sister were responsible for Cedric's death. But perhaps the greater questions are, What sort of family is this? How did Jackson wind up with two daughters in jail and one dead grandson?

According to police, Sheryleen Berryman left her five children and niece alone on the night of Wednesday, June 2, while she slept over at her boyfriend's home a few blocks away. When she returned to her Fair Park neighborhood home at 8:30 the next morning, she found paramedics working frantically to save Cedric's life. The boy was taken to Children's Medical Center's pediatric intensive care unit with a laceration to the spleen and liver, swelling of the brain, and several small looped welts on his chest and side. Doctors who saw the obvious signs of child abuse called police.

For the next week, until doctors disconnected Cedric from the life-support machines that kept him breathing, Berryman kept a vigil at her son's bed. She prayed for her son's life as well as the baby sister accused of hurting her child, she says.

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Felicia Mccarthy