As attorneys for the mother of Semaj Crosby on Tuesday said they agreed with a state report detailing past allegations of abuse and neglect in the household where the Joliet Township toddler died, police said the woman stopped cooperating with investigators weeks ago.
The report, issued Friday, stated that less than two months before 17-month-old Semaj was found dead under a couch, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services was investigating the alleged sexual abuse of a 3-year-old girl — Semaj’s cousin — who also lived in the home.
“The report is consistent with our own review and investigations in this matter,” according to a statement by attorney Neil Patel, of the firm of Chuck Bretz and Associates in Joliet, which is representing Sheri Gordon, Semaj’s mother.
Patel’s statement focused on the report’s conclusions “that 1. Sheri Gordon was and is ‘nurturing and caring’ to her children, 2. Being a single mother of four with limited support and resources presented extreme challenges, and 3. There were elements in Ms. Gordon’s life who took advantage of her, leading to her ‘victimization’, creating additional challenges.”
The statement also notes that the “… investigation into Semaj’s death is ongoing and our firm and Ms. Gordon are committed to cooperating with law enforcement in this matter. We ask those who review this report to consider the tremendous difficulties that Ms. Gordon faced as a mother, who did the best she could with sparse help and limited income.”
But Will County sheriff’s office spokeswoman Kathy Hoffmeyer said Tuesday that Gordon stopped speaking to detectives shortly after the death investigation began, as did Semaj’s aunt, Lakerisha Crosby, and her grandmother, Darlene Crosby, Hoffmeyer said. They lived in the same 864-square-foot home — which has since burned to the ground in a suspected arson — with Semaj and her three siblings.
“If you want to call them persons of interest, I guess … but as of right now no one is marked a suspect and no one is not a suspect,” Hoffmeyer said. “Those people have retained attorneys and are not cooperating with investigators at this time.”
She said of Gordon’s attorney’s statement: “He can say whatever he wants to say … I can’t really comment on what her attorneys are saying to the press.”
“Initially we did speak with them, of course,” Hoffmeyer said. “They quit speaking with us,” she said, estimating that they cut off communication within three days of the launch of the investigation on April 26.
An autopsy didn’t rule on the cause or manner of Semaj’s death. A toxicology report is expected back within a week or two, she said.
In addition to the three relatives named above, Hoffmeyer said there’s a fourth “person of interest” she could not identify, whom detectives are seeking to interview.
Also living in the home, records show, was the boyfriend of a relative. That man, on parole for domestic violence, lived there for a year, but left the home after the 3-year-old’s mother found bruising and vaginal swelling. DCFS named him “the alleged perpetrator.”
DCFS interviewed a physician who noted there was no sign of sexual penetration, though the child had “grab marks” on her legs as well as other bruises, welts and abrasions.
That DCFS investigation was one of 11 involving the family in the 12 months before Semaj’s death, according to the DCFS report. The agency also laid bare its own shortcomings, listing nine ways the agency sought to improve after its handling of the case.
The day before Semaj was found dead, DCFS had been at the home investigating a child-neglect allegation but saw “no obvious hazards or safety concerns” for Semaj or siblings, state officials said. Semaj, her three siblings and mother all slept in the same bedroom.
About two-and-a-half hours after the visit from DCFS, the toddler disappeared, prompting a massive search of the subdivision near Joliet. A top police official said the house was in “very deplorable” condition, adding that a lawyer for the girl’s mother made them get a search warrant before they entered it and found the girl.
On Saturday, George Sheldon, the head of DCFS, said that based on the documents he reviewed, neither Semaj nor her siblings should have been removed from the home.
Sheldon has said he’s under consideration for a job at a child-welfare agency in Florida. He is expected to make a decision before the end of the month.
Contributing: Mitchell Armentrout, Sam Charles