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Mitchell: DCFS fails to heed red flags in Semaj’s case

A white Will County Sheriff's Office vehicle is seen in front of the yellow house, surrounded by crime tape, where 16-month-old Semaj Crosby was found dead in April. The house has since been destroyed by a fire, and arson is suspected. | Stefano Esposito/Sun-Times

How is it possible that investigators with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services saw “no obvious hazards or safety concerns” when they went to the Joliet Township home Tuesday where 16-month-old Semaj Crosby was found dead a day later?

After a frantic search for the toddler, who witnesses said wandered out of the yard, Semaj’s body was found under a couch Wednesday at her home that police officials now say is “uninhabitable.”

It is unclear what caused Semaj’s death since the toxicology report has not been completed.

But a toddler has to be kept close.

This tragedy, however it occurred, will weigh on the heart and mind of Sheri Gordon, the baby’s mother, for the rest of her life.

OPINION

There were, however, red flags that could have helped DCFS help Gordon protect Semaj better.

For one thing, an attorney for Gordon, as well as neighbors, have described the house where Gordon was raising her daughter as a house of “squatters.”

Yet DCFS investigators saw the barefoot baby playing in the yard with six or eight other children — with no adult supervision — and deemed it to be a safe environment?

I could see that happening if the agency hadn’t had contact with Semaj’s mother in the recent past.

Semaj Crosby’s body was found in her Joliet Township home about a day after she was reported missing. | Will County sheriff’s office
Semaj Crosby was reported missing on Tuesday night from Joliet Township. Her body was found about midnight Wednesday in her home. | Will County sheriff’s office

But DCFS has been working with the family since September, when it determined that four allegations of neglect were “unfounded.” And two other investigations for “neglect” involving the toddler and two siblings were opened last month and are still pending.

DCFS did not respond to my requests for comment, saying the agency does not comment on an ongoing investigation.

Joliet officials have now slapped a red sticker on the doorway of the home and declared it “uninhabitable.”

Rick Ackerson, the deputy chief of investigations for the Will County sheriff’s office, told reporters “five to 15 people” were “squatting” in the house and that the house was in “deplorable” condition.

But Will County deputies were just at the house on Easter Sunday — just two weeks ago — in response to a 911 call about “abandonment.”

After determining the children were OK, the officers returned with Easter baskets, CBS-2 reported.

The deputies later posted a photograph of themselves on the department’s Facebook page with the five children, including the bare-topped Semaj sucking a pacifier.

Cute.

But did the deputies just ignore the “deplorable” conditions?

And why were caseworkers not alarmed when they went to the house on Tuesday?

That doesn’t add up.

Will County Sheriff’s officers blocked off the street where Semaj Crosby lived. The 16-month-old girl’s body was found in a home on Louis Road late Wednesday. By Thursday afternoon, a makeshift memorial had sprung up at the corner. | Stefano Esposito/Sun-
Will County Sheriff’s officers blocked off the street where Semaj Crosby lived. The 16-month-old girl’s body was found in a home on Louis Road late Wednesday. By Thursday afternoon, a makeshift memorial had sprung up at the corner. | Stefano Esposito/Sun-Times

The only way DCFS’ determination that there were no “obvious hazards or safety concerns” makes sense is if the caseworkers didn’t actually go inside the house.

Last month, a similar scenario unfolded involving a 3-year-old who was accidentally shot in the head while playing cops and robbers with his mother’s handgun.

Five children ages 3 to 11 had been left unsupervised in a home that had no heat or hot water. The children were sleeping on soiled mattresses on the floor without sheets or blankets and were surrounded by garbage and clothes, according to an assistant Cook County state’s attorney.

After the shooting, a DCFS spokesman acknowledged that social workers had been unable to get inside the home for an entire year.

“When we saw the children, we didn’t see evidence of abuse and neglect outside of the home. They were not thin. They were wearing clean clothes and things like that,” said Veronica Resa, deputy director of communications for DCFS.

Then, the agency’s director, George Sheldon, said the agency had “initiated a quality assurance analysis of the case to look at what we could have done differently.”

It is incredibly sad that some children are born into such a hard life.

But child welfare agencies are supposed to make that hard life a lot easier for them to bear.

The circumstances surrounding Semaj’s death again raises concerns that not enough is being done to keep these at-risk children from suffering while in the care of adults who are supposed to keep them from harm.