How many more children have to die in the custody of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services before it becomes a crisis?
Nearly 100 children died in FY 2018 in cases involving DCFS, according to the Inspector General report submitted to the governor and Illinois General Assembly in January.
At least one of those deaths raised troubling questions about the agency’s ability to monitor and protect children in its care.
Semaj Crosby, a 17-month old toddler, was the subject of a massive search before her body was discovered under a legless couch in a Joliet Township home in 2017.
Police described the conditions of the home the toddler shared with her mother and two siblings as “deplorable,” and the city declared the house “uninhabitable.”
But an investigator with DCFS was at the home 33 hours before the girl’s body was found, and a caseworker with the Children’s Home + Aid had visited the home once a week.
Neither child welfare worker saw a risk of harm to the toddler.
We saw this pattern repeated in the tragic death of Ja’hir Gibbons in Chicago last week.
The 2-year-old was apparently beaten to death by his mother’s boyfriend, 21-year-old Dejon Waters. A contracted caseworker employed by Omni Youth Services in Buffalo Grove is accused of falsifying records after the boy’s death.
Allegedly, the caseworker claimed to have seen Ja’hir and an older brother during a home visit. In a follow-up report, however, the caseworker said she only saw the older boy.
Even worse, a caseworker allegedly heard the mother’s boyfriend hitting the child in the next room during a home visit in October.
That caseworker allegedly didn’t intervene call the police. Instead, the caseworker “notified the Child Abuse Hotline and another caseworker was assigned to follow up with services,” according to prosecutors.
Five months later, Ja’hir was found unresponsive in his home, his body covered with new and old bruises.
I’m sure the majority of child welfare workers are as horrified as I am at the thought that someone charged with monitoring the well being of a toddler could leave that child in what appeared to be an abusive environment.
Last month, a similar tragedy occurred in Decatur. Two-year-old Ta’Naja Barnes was found lifeless “wrapped in a urine soaked blanket.” Police said the girl was “allowed to starve and freeze to death by her mother and mother’s boyfriend,” the Herald & Review reported.
In that case, the family also had previous involvement with DCFS.
Ta’Naja had been removed from the care of her mother and father previously because of abuse allegations.
A judge ordered the case closed after another contract agency, Webster Cantrell Hall, reported the family cooperated with services, and the monitoring of the home was “satisfactory.”
At that time, DCFS interim director Debra Dyer-Webster said the agency was “devastated” by the girl’s death.
“We have a responsibility to the children and families we serve to provide the best possible care,” she told the Herald & Review.
In the wake of Ta’Naja’s death Gov. J. B. Pritzker vowed to reduce the caseloads of DCFS workers.
Hopefully that will help caseworkers avoid making the blatant mistakes that contributed to these children’s deaths.
Because despite all of the warnings against mothers leaving their children with boyfriends, for a variety of reasons, young women will continue to put their kids at risk.
Ja’hir’s mother, Brittany Hyc, told police she left her child with the boyfriend because she had to go to work even though, allegedly, she was aware of the abuse.
Hyc now faces a felony count of endangering the life or health of a child.
Police allege Ta’Naja’s mother, Twanka Davis, was living with a man to cheap to pay for heat and the child froze to death.
Davis, and her boyfriend, Anthony Myers, were charged with first-degree murder and with endangering the life of a child.
Semaj’s homicide is still unsolved though Will County law enforcement named five people, including Semaj’s mother, as “persons of interest.”
These cases show that ethical child welfare workers are as critical to the safety of a community as police officers, because they are charged with protecting the most vulnerable members of our society.
But when caseworkers are negligent, and that negligence leads to a child’s death, it is not enough to terminate their employment.
They should be charged with criminal misconduct.
Apparently, that’s the only way to get the message across that these children matter.