MITCHELL: Child-welfare system continues to fail at-risk kids

SHARE MITCHELL: Child-welfare system continues to fail at-risk kids

Seventeen month-old Semaj Crosby was found dead under a couch at her home in an unincorporated section of Joliet in April. | Will County sheriff’s office photo

Semaj Crosby is safe now.

The toddler was laid to rest on Friday.

Nowadays, funerals are called “home-goings,” and “celebrations of life.” But it’s hard to stop crying when the casket is small enough to hold a 16-month-old.

That’s especially true in this case.

Adults often talk about a child being an “old soul.” But in every photograph I’ve seen of this child, she looked like she was carrying the burdens of this world.

And now we know why.


Last week, the Will County sheriff’s office revealed that, in a little more than a year leading up to Semaj’s death, officers had been in and out of her Joliet home 60 times and that the case is now a criminal investigation.

The visits were for probation checks, domestic violence, arson, crisis intervention and nuisance issues.

In the wake of Semaj’s death, police described the conditions of the home the toddler shared with her mother and two siblings as “deplorable,” and within days the city declared the house “uninhabitable.”

Outside of her sad eyes, there was no way for Semaj to communicate that her life was hellish.

But unfortunately, child-welfare workers didn’t see anything unusual in those eyes.


An investigator with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services was at the home 33 hours before Semaj’s dead body was found stuffed under a couch in a house overrun by garbage and concluded there were “no obvious hazards and safety concerns.”

A caseworker with the Children’s Home + Aid visited the home once a week and didn’t see any risk to Semaj, either.

“We were involved in this case as an intact family services case and were required to make weekly home visits, which we did,” said a spokesman for that agency.

The last visit would have been the day before Semaj disappeared.

Too often, what should be obvious signs of abuse are missed altogether.

From July 1, 2015, to June 30, 2016, the period covered by the Office of the Inspector General’s 2017 Report, the agency reviewed 100 deaths of children, including deaths of children whose families were involved with DCFS in the preceding 12 months.

Those deaths include that of a 2½-year-old girl brought to the emergency room with burns, bite marks, multiple rib fractures and blunt-force internal injuries.

Two years earlier, the mother had been arrested for child endangerment after she got into an argument at a party and allegedly pushed the infant, who was sitting in a car seat, over a porch ledge.

In that instance, the maternal grandmother obtained short-term guardianship of the infant, and the family was referred for intact family services.

Private agencies like Children’s Home + Aid, which bills itself as “a leading child and family service agency in Illinois,” are paid millions to provide services designed to keep families intact.

For instance, in its 2015 budget year, DCFS paid the agency $35,902,422.76; in 2016, $34,281,534.57; and in 2017, $28,558.174.56.

If a caseworker with that agency went to the Joliet home weekly, as required, and didn’t see anything concerning, the state definitely isn’t getting its money’s worth.

Worse yet, DCFS’s director, George Sheldon, seems to have bought into one of the worst stereotypes about poor people.

Sheldon has declined to comment on this case. He testified before a state Senate committee and argued that investigators don’t remove children from homes just because the residences are dirty and the parents are poor.

Semaj’s home wasn’t just dirty. The Will County Department of Land Use described it as having a “serious degree of filth.”

But let’s not equate “filth” with “poverty.”

Most poor people don’t allow garbage to pile up inside of their houses or let their children sleep on filthy mattresses on the floor. That’s neglect.

“Like everyone across the state, the governor wants answers on how such a horrific tragedy could happen,” a spokesman for Gov. Bruce Rauner said Friday. “Something like this should never happen, and we need to find out exactly why it did.”

The real tragedy here is that child-welfare workers didn’t have to look far to see that Semaj was at risk for harm.

They could have learned much of what they needed to know just by looking into Semaj’s eyes.

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