I was reading Dahleen Glanton's column in the Tribune this morning while watching the sun come up. In her article, she wrote about 17-month-old Semaj Crosby, found dead in her home in Joliet Township a day and a half after she was reported missing.
The toddler lived in a rental home with her mother, siblings, and several others described as "squatters," probably friends and relatives who had nowhere else to live. Investigators reported that, at times, there may have been as many as 15 people living there. They were known to come and go, so I'm not sure how many may have been living there when Semaj's body was discovered.
The family lived in squalor. Caseworkers from the Department of Children and Family Services noted that the home was littered with piles of clothing and trash. Exits were blocked by storage containers and other items. The home was later declared uninhabitable because it lacked a working stove. Cockroaches crawled along the walls.
A child welfare worker had been on a home visit there just hours before the girl was reported missing.
It's easy, in hindsight, to ask why the worker did not remove the child from the home, at that point, or even earlier, as DCFS had been to the home over a dozen times in the past year, investigating allegations of neglect.
Many shake their heads and ask how a child could have been permitted to stay in a crowded, cockroach-infested dwelling.
DCFS pointed out that the agency doesn't remove children from their parents just because they live in a dirty home. Nor do they take children away because of poverty.
Glanton pointed out that there's a practical reason for this: If every child were removed from his or her home because of being poor, there wouldn't be enough foster families available to accommodate them.
I agree. Furthermore, according to the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, children are generally better off with their biological families. The entity advocates foster care as a last resort, noting that, whenever possible, efforts should be made to keep families together. More damage may be done to children when they end up in foster care.
The death of a child can often lead to "foster care panic," causing many children to be unnecessarily placed in temporary custody.
If a family is low-income, but doing the best they can, that environment may well be preferable to some other type of care arrangement. The foster care system has sometimes been referred to as a "trap door" for many children, as they languish in it for many years, often passed around to multiple homes, disrupting their education and overall adjustment.
Many children reach age 18 without a family, and, unless there are transitional services available to help them live on their own, they are usually left to fend for themselves.
It also can't be guaranteed that a foster placement will provide a better home environment than the one the child left. Children are sometimes abused in foster care. In other cases, they're in an environment that's not the most nurturing.
Even in a supportive, stable home, placement is usually temporary, so the semblance of security is only short-lived.
Like Glanton, I believe that many more children can benefit from remaining in their own homes, with comprehensive services provided to help families get back on their feet.
I have a hard time blaming the caseworkers in this situation. Certainly, there are some cases where there are very obvious indicators that DCFS should have intervened by taking kids away from their families or caregivers. But this probably wasn't one of them. I wasn't there. I don't know everything that happened.
But, from the reports, we do know this: At least four of the alleged neglect cases were unfounded. Child welfare workers provided the mother with bunk beds, a vacuum, and cleaning supplies. The family probably needed more in the way of support services than this, but DCFS was likely trying to address what seemed to be the most urgent problem: a dirty home.
Besides the squalor, I was concerned about all the people living in the home with Semaj and her family. Since they seemed to be transient, it probably would have been difficult to keep tabs on who was there, and when, and therefore it would have been hard to determine if any of them posed a threat to the child.
Police have called the toddler's death "suspicious" but haven't charged anyone. I know this is beside the point, but after reading all the reports, I still have questions.
Authorities said that when she was found dead, there were no signs of physical trauma on Semaj's body. Yet she was found under a couch that had no legs and was flush to the ground. How did she get there, and how would she not have sustained some internal injuries from having a couch on top of her?
I agree with Glanton that, as we learn more about how this child died, people will be eager to cast blame. Hindsight is always 20/20, and we have to remember that, with no history of physical abuse, DCFS had no reason to suspect the baby was in danger.
What this shows us is that a government agency, or any other group of human beings, can't foresee everything that's going to happen to vulnerable children.
Second, the system is overburdened. They can't do it all. While those who advocate for keeping families intact also want to see social services improve, that's easier said than done, especially in light of the state's continued budget deadlock.
Individuals and families fare better when they are well-connected to their communities. Before we blame the child welfare system, let's ask ourselves what we would be willing to do to help families like this. Certainly, those responsible for looking out for children's best interests need to be held accountable, but to some extent, social responsibility belongs to all of us.
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