Little Keoni, who turned two in May, has come a long way since the last time she made headlines. When she was just 28 days old, in June 2011, she was apparently tossed near the steps of Weehawken High School, allegedly by her birth mother. Onlookers found her and she was airlifted to New York Presbyterian Hospital, suffering from cerebral hemorrhages, seizures, and developmental difficulties on the left side of her body.
As widely reported at the time, Keoni’s mother – who had been a teacher in West New York – chose prison instead of a mental institution and was sentenced to three years confinement. But what happened to the little girl?
“I think she knows I’m mom, even if I’m not really mom.” – Schapzi Rivera
“She’s my baby,” said Rivera at her apartment on Wednesday. “I think she knows I’m mom, even if I’m not really mom.”
Since the Riveras got custody of the little girl, Keoni has made great leaps and bounds with her treatment. She’s visited by several therapists a week, including a speech therapist. They work with her on motor, speech, and coordination skills.
She laughs at cartoons, reads books, and has developed her own system for eating, because her condition prevents her from eating and drinking normally. Schapzi described her as strong and resilient.
On the way to success
For a kid who started out with the cards stacked against her, Keoni operates as if she’s the queen of the world, or at least the queen of her own environment. Schapzi said that she interacts well with other children, as well as with visitors, and that her therapists are confident that by the time she’s at the right age, she will be capable of entering a special needs preschool program.
“All of her services are early intervention services,” said Schapzi. “When we first started, she didn’t want to do anything, but the programs are designed to get her ready for school, and she’s been doing really well with those.”
Schapzi herself took no credit for Keoni’s successes, though the child’s love for her adopted mother is obvious to any observer. Schapzi has put in countless hours of work to be able to care for Keoni, including classes at Hackensack University Medical Center on how to care for a child who suffers from seizures, and how to feed a child with motor development issues.
But there are difficulties, and they’re usually a bit deeper than any physical problem. Asked how she would explain the strange circumstances of Keoni’s upbringing to her when she’s old enough to understand, Schapzi said she didn’t really want to.
“I was a child in the foster system,” she said. “I didn’t meet my biological mom until I was 18, so I’m not sure how I’m going to do that. I don’t want to have to explain it.”
Keoni’s life was relatively drama free since coming to Hoboken, until last month, when her father got into some legal trouble. Schapzi is now the full-time caretaker of their daughter, and she is working with the child’s advisers and therapist to do what they advise for her.
Schapzi said she’s planning on finding a job in an effort to provide for Keoni. The love is undoubtedly there, but Schapzi said that she understood that unfortunately, sometimes you need more than love to make it.
“I want her to have to have everything,” Schapzi said of her daughter. “I want to make that happen.”
In fact, Schapzi was on her way to Western Kentucky University on a full-ride scholarship two years ago just before the incident happened with little Keoni.
“I remember we went to the hospital to see her, and I saw the scar on her head from where she fell, and it broke my heart,” said Schapzi. “When her father told me he could get custody, I said I’d stay.”
Schapzi said that she has no regrets.
“She needs somebody, and I love her, and I made the choice to stay with her,” she said. “I think we’re going to excel.”
Schapzi noted that several local officials have helped her throughout the past year, including State Sen. Brian Stack and Hoboken Housing Authority Executive Director Carmelo Garcia. Stack and Garcia said in separate statements last week that they will continue to assist Schapzi with whatever she and Keoni need.
It was reported in 2011 that the girl’s birthmother, a Weehawken resident, cried as she received her court sentence. She reportedly had been dealing with mental health issues but had decided to go off her medication while pregnant because she believed it would help her daughter.
Besides the jail sentence, she was forced to forfeit her teaching license as part of her plea.
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at email@example.com