Police say Nixmary Brown weighed only 36 pounds, and was possibly tied to a chair and forced to use a litter box for a toilet.
Nixmary's mother and stepfather were charged with murder.
New York Mayor Michael Blumberg seemed dumbfounded, wondering "how anybody can fathom what these parents did to this young, seven-year-old girl. It sort of defies description."
The city's Administration for Children's Services had received two complaints about the family, reports CBS News Correspondent Randall Pinkston. The first, in May, 2004, was found to be unsubstantiated. The second came just last month, on Dec. 1, when the little girl showed up at school with a black eye.
"I am committed, deeply committed as anyone can be, to doing whatever it is that we can do to minimize the chances that this kind of thing will happen again," vowed Children's Services Commissioner John Mattingly.
While blaming the parents for being uncooperative, the head of New York's welfare system couldn't explain why caseworkers didn't get a warrant to enter the house, Pinkston says.
At first glance, Pinkston observes, it would seem the way to prevent this type of tragedy is to place the child in foster care.
But Michael Arsham, who runs a child welfare project, says that's not necessarily so.
"It's a false premise that says we're protecting a child by placing them in foster care," Arsham asserts.
Arsham says there's significant risk in pulling more kids from their homes and putting them in foster care: "In the years that more children were removed, we've actually seen more fatalities."
Nixmary's great aunt appealed to anyone suspecting child abuse to report it.
"Don't let it happen to any other children," implored Caridad Ramos.
"Don't let what happened (happen) to any other children," she urged, her voice cracking. "That's the most I can say."