On June 23 in New Orleans, Brandajah Smith — a dark-chocolate confection of a 5-year-old with a mind full of questions — needed milk for her cereal. But getting to the store and back was the kind of task easier to accomplish quickly without a little one in tow. So her mother, Ladericka Smith, set out alone and locked the door behind her, thinking that her little girl would be all right.

By 10:50 a.m., Smith found Brandajah lying unconscious but breathing at the bottom of a bedroom closet with a bullet wound near the center of her forehead. The little girl had found a .38 revolver belonging to the man with whom the family was staying.

Brandajah died a short time later after being taken off life support. Police arrested her mother and charged her with cruelty to a juvenile. In June a grand jury indicted Smith on charges of second-degree murder.

Brandajah's death raised a number of troubling questions. In the nearly four months since she died, two possible explanations have emerged. In one version, her death was a tragic accident, the accidental shooting of a little girl with boundless curiosity and more than enough trauma in her short lifetime. The other version is even more tragic: a kindergartner's intentional suicide in the wake of a series of adult failures and possible crimes.

A Short, Sad Life

The suicides of young children remain in the realm of the exceedingly rare. But child-welfare experts and legal observers say that Brandajah's death is an event worthy of national attention not simply because of its novelty or the melancholia it is likely to inspire. Poor children — a group rapidly growing in the United States — face far greater risks of all types of deadly and deeply damaging harm, including an encounter with a firearm.

For now, America's response to this problem seems to be arresting bereaved parents whom prosecutors suspect of having failed in their most basic duty to protect children. But what are the nation's duties to these troubled families before the children die? What are the nation's duties to ensure that justice is served?

Even before the June day Brandajah died, almost nothing about her life could be described as ideal, interviews with relatives, public and private records reveal.

Brandajah frequently moved with her mother and 8-year-old sister, couch surfing at the homes of family and friends, a relative told The Root on condition of anonymity. On more than one occasion, Smith spent time in jail after arrests for prostitution, theft and failures to appear in court or pay required fines, according to public records. (Smith's court-appointed lawyer declined to comment when contacted by The Root because Smith's case is pending.)

Living with such turmoil may have been too much for Brandajah.

At John Dilbert Community School, teachers and counselors filled the little girl's school records with alarming details. Information shared by Brandon Pierre, the girl's father, indicates that the school contacted state child-welfare officials multiple times. The school believed that the little girl was being sexually abused. And there was something else.