The head of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services on Saturday conceded major problems with the handling of the Semaj Crosby case, but said, based on what he saw and reviewed, neither Semaj nor her siblings should’ve been removed from the home.
George Sheldon’s comments came a day after the agency released a 22-page report on the family’s history. DCFS opened 11 child endangerment investigations into the family in the year before the toddler was found dead under a couch in Joliet Township last month. Most were ruled unfounded based on a lack of evidence or remain pending still.
“I don’t think it was X, Y or Z employee,” Sheldon told the Chicago Sun-Times, “But a combination of systemic failures that came to a head.”
In a wide-ranging interview with the Sun-Times, Sheldon discussed his agency’s relationship with law enforcement, communication failures among caseworkers working with Semaj’s family and a job offer he has with a nonprofit in his home state of Florida.
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. “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.”
Late Friday, the Chicago Tribune reported that a supervisor in the Joliet office of DCFS was offering two $100 gift cards and a $50 gift card to the three caseworkers “who closed the most cases in a month.”
Sheldon said “to add a financial incentive to [an investigation] is just the wrong message.”
After learning of the incentive program, which took place in January, Sheldon ordered a review of each case opened that month in the Joliet office “just to make sure every single case was closed appropriately.”
It was not known how many cases would be reviewed, but Sheldon said the approximately 30 investigators in the DCFS office are assigned about 12 new cases each month.
With the tumult his agency has seen in the last month, Sheldon is weighing a job offer at the nonprofit Our Kids in his home state of Florida. He has until the end of the month to accept or decline, he said.
“Over this weekend I’ve got to figure out what I’m going to do,” he said. I’m torn. Florida is home. I do think, in spite of this death, I do think we’re making incremental progress.”
“This is a very difficult system to run,” Sheldon added. “I don’t think I fully realized that. I’m torn between staying here and trying to finish this and going home.”
DCFS concluded its Friday report with a list of “Lessons Learned and Recommendations.”
Among those recommendations was a review of the way the agency documents unfounded allegations against caregivers.
“Because reports were unfounded, a new [State Central Registry] number was given with each new report,” the agency wrote. “This process does not lend itself to linking and understanding history and trends.”
Sheldon said changing the way the agency communicates among its employees and the way it recognizes patterns was the top priority.
“You need to have a total picture of what’s happening with a family,” Sheldon said. “Law enforcement can look at prior arrests, even if they were unfounded. That’s not true of unfounded [child endangerment] reports, but it should be.”
Semaj lived in the 864-square-foot home in the 300 block of Louis Road with her mother, three siblings, paternal grandmother, paternal aunt, her two young children and her parolee boyfriend. Gordon’s Section 8 housing voucher was allotted for only her and her children, Joliet housing officials previously said.
The Will County sheriff’s office said the home was in “very deplorable” condition when the child was found on April 27.
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 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.
Less than two weeks after Semaj was found dead, the house burned to the ground. Authorities said arson was “most likely” the cause.