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Public guardian rips ‘major failures’ by DCFS in death of 2-year-old boy

Ja'hir Gibbons | Provided

Cook County’s public guardian ripped the state’s child protection agency Friday, accusing the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services of “major failures at all levels” following the death of 2-year-old Ja’hir Gibbons while the boy’s family was under the state’s supervision.

Acting Public Guardian Charles Golbert said the public guardian’s office never became involved with Ja’hir’s case because DCFS didn’t bring a case to court seeking custody of the toddler, who was found beaten to death Monday at his Washington Park home.

Golbert’s criticism comes a day after DCFS announced it was investigating a contracted caseworker employed by Buffalo Grove-based Omni Youth Services for allegations that the worker falsified records related to Ja’hir after the boy’s death.

And it came the same day Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Ja’hir’s death was a tragedy that could have been prevented by reducing the caseloads of DCFS workers.

“The additional issue here is that there’s an individual and an agency that have made gross mistakes,” Pritzker said. “The investigation that’s ongoing now is intended to make transparent what those challenges were and how we should address them.”

State records show Omni Youth Services has received more than $8 million in state contracts since 2015 to provide services for DCFS. The organization has not responded to multiple requests for comment from the Sun-Times.

Golbert called on DCFS to conduct a full audit of reports filed by the caseworker.

“If you have a worker falsifying records in a case, you then need to go back and review all of their other cases,” Golbert said. Judges and agencies “use these reports to make their decisions.”

Golbert said he found Ja’hir’s case “disturbing,” especially after DCFS said a caseworker assigned to the family allegedly heard his mother’s boyfriend striking the child during a visit to the home in October.

“That’s incredible audacious — abusing a child in the other room while a caseworker is is at the house,” Golbert said. “If you’re at a house and you believe the abuse is going on there … they should have called the police.”

Golbert criticized DCFS for not re-evaluating the agency’s decision to keep the family intact at that time, saying caseworkers should “be constantly reassessing” the situation, Golbert said.

A spokesman for DCFS did not respond to a message seeking reaction to Golbert’s comments on Friday.

Cook County prosecutors said the caseworker notified the Child Abuse Hotline and another caseworker was assigned to follow up with services.

Ja’hir was found unresponsive on Monday evening at his home in the 6500 block of South Prairie Avenue. His body was covered in new and old bruises when he was rushed to Comer Children’s Hospital that night, where he was pronounced dead soon after his arrival, prosecutors said.

An autopsy conducted by the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office found evidence the boy suffered prolonged and significant blunt force trauma, including fractures to his ribs that were at various stages of healing, a new wrist fracture, numerous lacerations to his liver and a bruised lung, prosecutors said.

On Thursday, Ja’hir’s mother’s boyfriend, 21-year-old Dejon Waters, was denied bail on a charge of first-degree murder in the toddler’s death. Ja’hir’s mother, Brittany Hyc, 28, faces a felony count of endangering the life or health of a child, and she was ordered held in lieu of posting $20,000 bond.

Prosecutors said Waters admitted to detectives that he beat the boy with his hands and a rolled-up shirt on Monday until the boy “began foaming at the mouth.”

A spokesman for DCFS provided a detailed timeline of the agency’s contact with the family on Friday night, which showed the agency’s involvement dates back to 2010 – before Ja’hir and the 5-year-old brother he was living with were born.

The agency’s first interactions with Hyc involved two of Ja’hir’s half-siblings, who were taken from Hyc’s custody soon after their birth in 2010 and in 2012, according to DCFS. Both of those children were ultimately adopted.

In May 2013, Ja’hir’s now 5-year-old brother was temporarily taken into DCFS custody and placed into foster case until he was returned to Hyc two years later. He remained in Hyc’s care at the time of Ja’hir’s death, the agency said, but is now in foster care.

Chicago police said Ja’hir’s 5-year-old brother also showed signs of abuse when Ja’hir was taken to Comer on Monday.

In a statement Friday, DCFS Interim Director Debra Dyer-Webster said the agency “must do better.”

“The governor has made it clear that protecting vulnerable children is a core priority, and in providing 126 additional caseworkers in his proposed budget, we are taking a significant step forward,” Dyer-Webster wrote. “But there is no one who thinks our work ends there. Over the coming weeks and months, we are committed to increasing our capacity even further, conducting a comprehensive review of the entirety of our work to understand where we come up short, and being fully transparent with the public as to the steps we are taking.”

Golbert said changes at DCFS need to start at the top, noting that the agency has had 12 directors or interim directors leading the organization in the last 10 years.

“I’m trying to be cautiously optimistic that there will be someone [hired to lead the agency] who will bring new ideas and will be there for the long haul,” Golbert said.