About a month before 3-year-old Gina Presley died, her grandfather says he began calling the state’s child-abuse hotline, worried about her safety.
Days passed, and nothing happened.
So Gerald Presley went to the Oak Forest police on March 11, telling them there might be “drug use” in the home where Gina lived with his sister — her legal guardian — and his sister’s new boyfriend, records show. Presley says the police told him to call the hotline again, and he did.
Eight days later, Illinois child-welfare officials asked police to make a “well-being check” on Gina, based on “reports of her having bruises,” according to a police report.
When officers got to that house that evening, no one was home.
A week later, Gina was found dead, allegedly killed by the boyfriend who had caused Gerald Presley’s concern, prompting him to call the child-abuse hotline “at least” three times.
“I started calling at the end of February or in early March, but they didn’t take me seriously,” Presley says. “Obviously, you see what happened.”
What happened is part of an alarming trend in Illinois: More kids are dying from child abuse and neglect, and a growing number of those deaths are occurring despite the child-welfare system’s involvement in investigating or monitoring their care, a Chicago Sun-Times and WBEZ examination of 10 years of neglect and abuse cases has found.
For the 12 months ending June 30, 2013, child deaths caused by abuse or neglect hit a 30-year high statewide, according to data from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. For the first time since 1989, the number of death cases topped 100.
DCFS doesn’t release year-by-year statistics on the number of children dying as a result of abuse or neglect while the agency is investigating or monitoring them. Agency officials say that most of the abuse and neglect deaths — about three out of four — involve households that the department had no prior contact with. How they’ve determined that isn’t clear.
To determine how many abuse and neglect deaths there were in cases involving families with whom the agency was involved, the Sun-Times and WBEZ reviewed annual reports produced by DCFS Inspector General Denise Kane. Those reports list the cause of death for children whose families had contact with the agency within one year of the death and for children who were wards of the state when they died.
Abuse and neglect deaths in which the department had prior involvement more than doubled between 2010 and 2011 — from 15 deaths to 34. There were 34 deaths again in 2012, 15 caused by abuse and 19 by neglect.
Of the 19 DCFS-involved neglect deaths, 11 involved infants being smothered or falling after being placed in dangerous sleeping conditions. Such deaths often weren’t classified as neglect until late 2011, when DCFS began pressing its investigators to discipline parents who’d been educated about sleep safety or placed their children in unsafe sleep conditions because of alcohol or drug use.
Because Kane’s analysis is limited to “the deaths of Illinois children whose families were involved in the child-welfare system within the preceding 12 months,” the number of deaths in families with whom DCFS had been involved could be higher.
Elijah Mims, a 4-year-old South Holland boy, died while being treated for lymphangiomatosis, a rare disease in which non-malignant tumors attack the body.
Elijah’s 13-year-old brother found him “face-down on his bed with white foam around his mouth” on Feb. 12, 2012, according to a Cook County medical examiner’s report. Elijah died two days later from what authorities concluded was an accidental overdose of morphine. South Holland police reported the case to DCFS “as suspected child abuse” and continue to investigate, records show.
DCFS had investigated Elijah’s home five times, including twice in 2008, when child-protection officials found the accusations to be credible, the Sun-Times reported after his death.
Elijah’s case isn’t among those Kane includes in her 2012 report, though. That’s because his family’s most recent contact with DCFS had been more than a year earlier, the cutoff point for her analysis.
Attempts to reach Elijah’s parents were unsuccessful.
Even when deaths occur within the one-year window, some cases still might not be counted because DCFS officials rely on “coroners, hospitals and law enforcement in Illinois to report child deaths,” Kane writes. “The deaths are not always reported. Therefore, true statistical analysis of child deaths in Illinois is difficult because the total number of children that die in Illinois each year is unknown.”
The overall increase in the number of abuse and neglect deaths — regardless of whether DCFS was involved — is “troubling, and we need to figure it out,” says Benjamin S. Wolf, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois who monitors DCFS under a federal court order.
Regarding the safety of children DCFS monitors and investigates, agency Director Richard Calica says he has taken steps including eliminating management positions and converting them to investigator jobs.
Calica says that has reduced caseloads that were as high as 25 per investigator when he took over the agency nearly two years ago, with investigators now typically handling nine cases each.
Wolf says that might explain the higher number of DCFS-involved abuse and neglect deaths in 2011 and 2012.
“If you investigate late and you investigate sloppily, it’s more likely that something bad will happen to that child,” Wolf says. “Hopefully, the improvements we’ve made in the caseloads of investigators in the last year will cause some improvements in the coming years.”
Gina Presley appeared to be in a safe environment until her guardian, Kim DeBartolo, 45, filed for divorce late last year, and her new boyfriend, Jessie Rodriguez, moved in to her Oak Forest home. DeBartolo began caring for Gina — whose parents were teens when she was born — when she was 6 months old.
Rodriguez, who’d been convicted of gun and drug crimes in the early 1990s and sentenced to probation, is now being held at the Cook County Jail, where he awaits trial for murder in Gina’s death. She died from “blunt force trauma due to child abuse,” authorities concluded. Rodriguez has pleaded not guilty.
Gerald Presley says he wishes his warnings to DCFS and the police could have gotten Gina out of harm’s way.
“I know a lot of stuff falls through the cracks with them, but you know what, that’s just the way, I guess, the system works, you know?” he says.
Calica calls deaths like Gina’s “a horror” but says they are rare, given the number cases DCFS handles each year.
“I think it’s real important to understand from a demographics standpoint that while any death is a horror, one out of 39,000 isn’t a bad error rate,” Calica says. “I think it’s unfair to judge a system by a tragedy and have tragedies drive public policy and the entire system, when certain tragedies, I’m sorry, are not preventable.”
[ooyala code="RncXk5aDoO0ynWCWH8P3UucoDTsLAXZQ" player_id="6a2df3b63e284329878af255b1be229d"]
Chris Fusco and Monifa Thomas are Sun-Times staff reporters. Tony Arnold is a reporter for WBEZ.