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DCFS drops bombshell as it investigates Little Village fire deaths

A memorial sits outside a house where 10 children between 3 months and 16 years old were killed when a fire broke out in the second-story of a coach house in the 2200 block of South Sacramento Avenue, Wednesday morning, Aug. 29, 2018. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

A memorial outside a house where 10 children between 3 months and 16 years old were killed early Sunday when a fire broke out in the second-story of a coach house in the 2200 block of South Sacramento Avenue. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The mother of five of the kids who died in a weekend blaze in Little Village was the subject of 21 prior child-welfare investigations — 19 of which were ruled “unfounded,” the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services said Wednesday — an announcement that came as it conducts a new probe of the fire deaths.

Yolanda Ayala, 35, is among the four mothers whose 10 children perished in the apartment fire during a sleepover early Sunday morning at 2224 S. Sacramento. DCFS said in a press release that it also had substantiated allegations against another one of the moms.

Ayala, who lived with her children in the apartment where the kids died, declined to comment Wednesday. Enrique Enriquez, a family  spokesman, said that her past is irrelevant to the tragedy at hand.

“DCFS is one of the worst agencies in the state. They fail kids everywhere. … They came to the home, inspected the home, and everything was fine,” Enriquez said. “The kids were always happy. We need to stop talking about what happened in the past. We need to talk about the main issues, which is the fire.”

The decision to provide the media with detailed information about DCFS’ investigations involving the mothers of the dead children was extremely unusual — especially amid its new probe into neglect involving Sunday’s deadly fire, in which no adults were present.

RELATED: EDITORIAL: 10 deceased children, 11 weighty questions

“It’s obviously a tragic case,” said Neil Skene, special assistant to the director of DCFS. “We believe in being as open as we can under the rules of confidentiality.”

DCFS, in its news release, said: “None of these individual reports by itself rose to the level of our removing children from their parents. Our current direction at DCFS is to be as proactive as possible in dealing with struggling, vulnerable families.”

Charles Golbert, the acting Cook County Public Guardian, said the report was shocking.

“It’s an extraordinary number of investigations for any one family. And it’s an extraordinary number of investigations that were unfounded,” Golbert said. An unfounded investigation means the agency couldn’t find credible evidence of child abuse or neglect.

Ald. George Cardenas (12th), whose ward includes Little Village, has said the building where the fire occurred was a problem for the neighborhood in terms of complaints about noise and potential illegal activity. He declined to comment on the DCFS report Wednesday.

“I am not going to judge anybody,” he said. “I am going to focus on the children getting a decent burial.”

Smoke detector found

Fire officials said Wednesday that they found a smoke detector in the wreckage of the apartment where the children died — but it didn’t have a working battery. Investigators previously said they couldn’t find smoke detectors in the unit, but the landlord insisted he installed them.

Fire officials said they’re also analyzing “an electrical device unrelated to earlier violations,” but didn’t elaborate.

City records show a series of code violations in the building over the years, including unapproved cords, defective fixtures and a lack of smoke detectors. Those violations were fixed, according to Building Department records.

Probe dates to 2004

DCFS didn’t provide any details about its ongoing investigation involving the fire, but it provided the Sun-Times and other news organizations with a list of prior allegations against the mothers of the dead children.

The probes involving Ayala began in 2004 and DCFS opened new ones in all but four of the years since then.

In 2013, DCFS substantiated allegations that Ayala failed to properly supervise her son, who was 5 years old and was spotted running through traffic. The boy appeared to be autistic and was taken to a hospital. The family was “referred for community-based services,” according to DCFS.

Two years later, Ayala was investigated after her 16-year-old daughter took a 7-month-old relative to a mall in Lombard and used the baby as a “pawn” to steal merchandise, hiding the loot in a stroller, DCFS said. The agency said Ayala, her daughter and others were later stopped in a car by police officers.

Ayala is the mother of Cesar Contreras, 14; Nathan Contreras, 13; Xavier Contreras, 11; Ariel Garcia, 5; and Amayah Almaraz, 3 months old, according to DCFS. She has three surviving children who also are minors, including a 17-year-old son, a 15-year-old son and a 2-year-old daughter.

‘She always opened her doors’

Melanie Perez, one of Ayala’s 10 siblings, said her sister always welcomed needy kids from the neighborhood.

“My sister always brought in extra kids, and if they didn’t have anything to eat, they fed them. If they needed a place to stay, she always opened her doors. She never said no to anybody,” she said.

According to DCFS, Ayala’s 17-year-old son lives with a girlfriend; the 15-year-old is in a “safety plan” with his adult sister; and the 2-year-old is living with her paternal grandmother.

DCFS said Priscilla Cobos — the mother of three other children who died in the fire — was never the subject of an investigation by the agency. Her children were Giovanni Ayala, 10; Gialanni Ayala, 5; and Alanni Ayala, 3. Cobos is a sister-in-law of Yolanda Ayala.

Leticia Reyes, the mother of deceased 14-year-old Adrian Hernandez, was investigated in 2007 but the allegation was ruled unfounded. Hernandez’s surviving child is in the care of a grandmother. Reyes is a sister of Yolanda Ayala.

And Sonya Carrillo, the mother of 16-year-old Victor Mendoza, who also died in the fire, was investigated five times by DCFS. Allegations that she inadequately supervised her kids were deemed to be founded twice, in 1996 and 1999, according to DCFS. She was described as a friend of Yolanda Ayala.

Golbert, the acting Cook County Public Guardian, said the DCFS report on Wednesday highlights what he considers to be a long-running problem.

“In recent years DCFS has had a number of cases where they’ve investigated and ‘unfounded’ a case and the child later dies — as well as cases where DCFS investigates and ‘indicates’ but instead of bringing the case to court they provide services and the child dies,” Golbert said.

He said it’s important for courts to hear child-welfare cases because judges can order at-risk children into foster care. In “borderline” cases, they can provide supervision and give incentives to parents to “do what they need to do.”

Golbert said even if DCFS was correct in determining that 19 of the 21 prior allegations against Ayala were unfounded, the agency should have taken some action.

“You would still want to put a set of eyes on the kids and provide services for the family,” he said. “It’s shocking it didn’t happen more than once for this family.”

Court records show Ayala has five theft convictions and a sixth for state benefit fraud. She was also convicted of a drug charge.

Ayala was facing eviction after her landlord sued her for overstaying her lease without paying rent. The case was pending when the fire destroyed the unit.

Court records show she was charged in 2014 with shoplifting and contributing to the delinquency of two minors in her care when they helped her steal $854 in merchandise from a Walgreens in Berwyn.

In 2015, she was charged with the same crimes when one of the minors in the 2014 theft helped her steal $154 in merchandise from a Walmart in Cicero.

Ayala pleaded guilty to the shoplifting charges in both cases, but the allegations of contributing to the delinquency of a minor were dismissed. She received probation in each case.

Emanuel looking for answers

On Wednesday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said he is asking city officials if the city did enough to prevent the tragedy, given the building’s history of code violations.

“I want to know how it got started. Why it happened. … When the investigation is done, we’re going to know more before you start pointing fingers of who’s to blame,” he said.

Contributing: Mitch Dudek, Fran Spielman, Mitchell Armentrout