CHICAGO (CBS) — The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services was back on the hot seat Tuesday, forced to answer state lawmakers’ questions about the mysterious death of 17-month-old Semaj Crosby, found dead under a couch hours after DCFS caseworkers visited her Joliet home in April.
DCFS officials testified before a joint House and Senate committee hearing about what could have been done to prevent Crosby’s death. At one point during the hearing, Semaj’s godmother teared up as she expressed shock at what happened.
Semaj was found dead in her family home in April. Her body was found under a couch two days after her mother reported her missing. DCFS caseworkers had visited the home just hours before Semaj was reported missing, and had determined there were no obvious hazards or safety concerns at the time.
Local officials later deemed the home uninhabitable, saying it was in “very deplorable condition” at the time of Semaj’s death. Police said 5 to 15 people lived in the home, and the family’s attorney told investigators all but Semaj, her mother, and two siblings were squatters. The vacant house burned to the ground nine days after Semaj died, the possible result of arson.
DCFS director Beverly “B.J.” Walker has been on the job for just a month, but said the department is making several changes to prevent another similar case in the future.
“I want to assure you that this work is something that will always be continuous. We’re not going to simply make a couple of changes in procedure and pronounce the job done,” she said.
Lawmakers said they want to know what specific mistakes DCFS made, and what changes could be made to prevent this kind of thing from happening again.
“We have a systematic problem that has never been addressed, and today I want this to be the beginning of a ‘never should have happened’ to never happen again, because we are talking about children’s lives,” Rep. Mary Flowers (D-Chicago) said.
Semaj’s death has been labeled suspicious, but an autopsy proved inconclusive, pending the results of lab and toxicology tests. The Will County Sheriff’s office has said there were no obvious signs of trauma or injury.
Walker, who was appointed last month after her predecessor George Sheldon resigned in the wake of the scandal over Semaj’s death, said Semaj’s mother faced multiple challenges in her Joliet home.
“From what we know so far, Semaj’s mother, Sheri Gordon, was waging a valiant but ultimately losing battle to survive and take care of her children as best she could in the face of dire poverty and challenging conditions,” she said.
Walker acknowledged changes are needed at DCFS, but said it’s difficult for caseworkers to decide whether to remove a child from a home. She said caseworkers must carefully contemplate the risk, as it is sometimes just as traumatic for a child to leave their home as it is to endure the circumstances that brought DCFS there in the first place.
Even before Tuesday’s hearing, DCFS had conceded missteps before Semaj’s death. A 22-page report from the state’s child welfare agency acknowledged her mother’s “cognitive limitations” were not addressed by caseworkers.
During one visit, Semaj’s mother told a caseworker she had only two sons and that Semaj and another child in the home belonged to another woman who, in reality, is Semaj’s aunt.
On another visit, a caseworker reported seeing Semaj’s mother sweeping “debris from the floor into a corner of the house.”
Also, according to the report, three adults living in the home previously had been named as “alleged perpetrators in child protection investigations.”
The report also made several mentions of one of Semaj’s siblings: a 7-year-old with suicidal tendencies. Semaj’s mother reportedly refused to take him to the hospital or refill his psychotropic medication.
It further noted a tipster had called DCFS to report approximately 30 people living inside the home, some of them openly selling drugs. Both the accusations were unfounded, but police did question relatives who were in the home, and labeled them squatters.
The DCFS report concluded caseworkers did not make sufficient effort to adequately address the problems at Semaj’s home. It also uncovered reports of questionable practices, including an incentive program for caseworkers who closed the most cases in a month.
Sheldon resigned as DCFS director in May, less than a week after that report was released. Sheldon did not provide a reason for his resignation, and has defended the caseworkers who visited Semaj’s home the day she was reported missing, but did not find reason to remove her or her siblings from the squalid home.
“An untidy or dirty home doesn’t mean we remove the child, because the child may be loved and cared for – but they may be poor,” Sheldon said at the time.
Sheldon said filth alone is not enough to remove children.