Beverly Walker, the newly appointed director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, took questions from lawmakers on the death of 17-month-old Semaj Crosby on Tuesday.
Addressing a joint House-Senate committee in Chicago, Walker said the agency has implemented four new “action steps” to help DCFS better analyze new cases.
“We’ve been engaged in taking a hard look at ourselves at every level but I want to assure you that this look is something that will always be continuous,” Walker said. “We’re not going to simply make a couple of changes in procedure and pronounce the job done. I want to assure you that this work has our most urgent attention.”
Walker’s testimony was the first time she had spoken in her official capacity since Gov. Bruce Rauner appointed her in late June, after the resignation of former director George Sheldon.
State Sen. Pat McGuire (D-Crest Hill), whose district includes Joliet Township, where Semaj lived and died, asked Walker how she would characterize the complexity of the Crosby case.
“Clearly, in the couple of months before Semaj died, it had reached the upper limits [of possible case complexity],” Walker said. “We missed some of that. We looked at it as episodes.”
“We missed [signs] because we were looking at it from an episodic point of view.”
Semaj was found dead under a couch in the house about midnight April 26. The day before, 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 a visit from DCFS, the toddler disappeared, prompting a massive search of the subdivision near Joliet. A top Will County 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.
A report issued by DCFS after the girl’s death disclosed that the agency had frequent interactions with Semaj’s family leading up to the child’s death. Eleven investigations of abuse or neglect were filed in the year before Semaj died.
Semaj’s paternal grandmother, aunt and her two children lived in the same 864-square-foot home as Semaj, her three siblings and her mother, Sheri Gordon.
Less than two weeks after Semaj was found dead, the house burned to the ground. Authorities said arson was “most likely” the cause.
No charges have been filed in Semaj’s death, though the Will County sheriff’s office has classified it as “criminal.” After three months, the Will County coroner’s office has not yet released the cause and manner of Semaj’s death.
Speaking with the Chicago Sun-Times earlier this year, Sheldon conceded major problems with the handling of the case, but he said, based on what he saw and reviewed, neither Semaj nor her siblings should’ve been removed from the home.
Despite the frequent interactions with DCFS for various allegations of abuse and neglect in the year before 17-month-old Semaj was found dead, caseworkers still determined that the children did not need to be removed from the home.
“Based on what I saw in terms of the individual allegations and the ones where we couldn’t prove it, I didn’t see anything that would’ve indicated removal,” Sheldon said then. “It appeared to be a family in need but not a situation where the folks on the ground felt the child was in physical danger.”