I never imagined I would pressure a grieving family member into giving me an interview. But I was desperate. My deadline was looming and there was still an important piece missing from my story: An interview with the aunt of a young boy who was beaten to death.
I really needed this interview. Finally a few days later, I gathered the strength to pick up the phone one last time. She didn’t answer, so I left a message telling her that I would be writing about Christopher’s death with or without her. I wanted to do the story justice, but for that, I needed her.
A few minutes later, she sent me a text.
“I was expecting to be a bit stronger for our interview. As it got closer I was filled with a lot of emotion. I actually wasn’t as ready as I thought,” the text read. “After listening to your message a moment ago I do want to get the better facts. Let’s try this again.”
I stopped reading. I smiled but felt a little sick. Did I push too hard?
I looked down at my phone and continued reading.
“This will be my first time there after the stone was placed… so it will be a lot of emotions. I will be there for sure for Christopher.”
I had been working on a story about child safety. I dug through 10 years of child homicides from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services’ Office of the Inspector General’s reports. I read dozens of reports that documented DCFS’s involvement with a family and the reasons that led up to the child’s homicide. The Chicago Reporter wrote a similar story five years ago and I wanted to check whether the situation had improved.
DCFS has had a troubled history. About two decades ago the agency negotiated a consent decree to settle a federal lawsuit. The suit alleged the agency was taking too many children into the system and that led to a large workload and limited funding. All of this, the lawsuit claimed, inflicted harm on kids. The decree required extensive reforms and the current administration says the agency has improved.
We focused the story on homicides of children who had been under DCFS supervision or cases where there was an unfounded child abuse or neglect investigation within a year of the child's death. I felt it was important to focus on the homicides because this reflects the ultimate failure of the system in protecting the most vulnerable population – children.
We reviewed 223 child homicides. I read dozens of horrible, heartbreaking descriptions. A frustrated father who shook his baby boy so hard the baby died. A woman’s boyfriend punched her 2-year-old son in the stomach because he had diarrhea. The punch ruptured his liver. A 5-month-old baby’s father shook his son vigorously enough to make his brain bleed.
This part of the reporting process took weeks, during which I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking about these babies, imagining every detail of the abuse. I averaged only a couple of hours of sleep each night.
By the time Katrina agreed to be interviewed for the second time at the cemetery, I thought I was ready. I had read all the reports from DCFS, the OIG office and criminal records. But I wasn’t prepared for the emotional toll.
I picked Katrina up early in the morning. She was very nice, very open. She hopped in my car and during the 20-minute drive to the cemetery she talked about Christopher, his mother and his siblings. When Christopher was only 6 months, he and his family moved into Katrina’s house for a year. The boy grew up with Katrina’s son, who is around the same age. She spoke freely. She seemed comfortable.
When we got there, I parked the car and told her we could take the interview as slow as she needed. We walked to the grave. When she saw the headstone with a teddy bear swinging on it and a picture of a smiling Christopher, she lost it. She knelt down next to the grave and started caressing it, as if it was Christopher’s face. I didn’t say anything. I gave her space. I told myself: Don’t cry. Control yourself.
She wiped her tears and started talking about Christopher. That’s when I asked her about the day she found the 5-year-old’s lifeless body. She described that day in detail, stopping briefly to cry. It was difficult for her to remember and difficult for me to hear.
We took a break and as we walked to a shade tree, Katrina started crying again. Looking at the grave she said “we could have been more involved. He shouldn’t be here.”
That’s when I realized how much of a burden she carries. She feels guilty for letting Christopher and his family move out. I walked close to her and tried to comfort her.
Katrina’s interview has been one of the most difficult interviews I’ve ever had. By the time it was over, she looked at me and said, “I needed this.”
I took a deep breath and felt a little better. Twenty minutes later, I parked my car in front of her Southwest Side house. I thanked her for opening up to me and sharing Christopher’s story. She nodded and said she needed to be Christopher’s voice both in court and in my story.
I hugged her tight and drove back to work.