Judge rips caseworkers who visited squalid home before toddler died
Photos from the Will County Land Use Department’s inspection of the home where Semaj Crosby, 1, was found dead in the home. Will County officials cited eight violations in the Joliet Township home. (Will County Land Use Department)
Days after the body of a 1-year-old Joliet Township girl was found under a couch in a house infested with bed bugs and with roaches climbing the walls, a Will County judge demanded to know what child welfare workers had done to help the family.
During a hearing Tuesday to determine where to place the deceased girl’s three older brothers, Judge Paula Gomora said in previous visits to the home caseworkers missed obvious signs of trouble.
"What did they do to help the family and to help these children?" Gomora asked, incredulously. "Quite honestly, from what I saw, I don’t know how any caseworker could’ve walked into that house and let those children stay."
She did not receive any immediate answers.
Semaj Crosby was found dead inside her home Thursday morning, shortly after midnight. The girl had been reported missing Tuesday evening by her mother. Authorities, who initially believed the girl wandered off, searched the Joliet Township neighborhood Tuesday night and throughout the day Wednesday.
Around 11 p.m. Wednesday, investigators gained consent from Sheri Gordon, the girl’s 32-year-old mother, and her attorney to search the house. After an hour, investigators found Semaj’s body under a couch.
A statement last week from the Department of Children and Family Services said a DCFS investigator was at Semaj’s home the day she disappeared. A Will County sheriff’s spokeswoman last week said DCFS had contact with the family 16 times since last year.
A DCFS spokeswoman said the agency had been in contact with the family since September, including four unfounded investigations for neglect and two pending investigations for neglect that were opened in March. Officials also stated they did not see cause to remove the children when they visited the home last week.
"There were no obvious hazards or safety concerns at the time," the statement issued last week read.
DCFS declined further comment Tuesday.
The girl’s death is being investigated as "suspicious," authorities said. An autopsy indicated additional information, including toxicology reports, was needed before determining a cause of death. A sheriff’s spokeswoman said there were no visible signs of trauma to Semaj’s body.
Semaj’s mother remained quiet and showed no emotion throughout the hearing Tuesday. Authorities told Gomora the DCFS office of inspector general will investigate the agency’s handling of the case to ensure proper procedures were followed.
DCFS had contracted with the private child welfare agency Children’s Home + Aid to provide services to the family after the state agency determined in the earlier investigations that protective custody was not necessary. Children’s Home + Aid did not immediately respond to messages Tuesday.
"If there were reasonable efforts (by caseworkers), those children would’ve been removed a long time ago," Gomora said.
She pointed to documents from the county’s land use department, noting the house had been deemed uninhabitable because of a broken stove. The inspector’s report also included eight other citations for general conditions of the home. Gomora also pointed to other court documents noting there were roaches "crawling up the walls" and bedbugs in the home.
The judge appeared disgusted, and she demanded access to child welfare records to better explain what happened.
"That didn’t happen in a couple of days," Gomora said of the squalor. "That was a long-standing problem."
Gomora ultimately placed the oldest of the three children, a 10-year-old boy, with his biological father, who lives in Joliet. She said the mother will be allowed supervised visits at the discretion of DCFS.
The mother’s 2-year-old son, whose father lives in Springfield and was not in court Tuesday, was taken into DCFS custody and placed in shelter care. The mother appeared upset and hugged relatives in the hallway outside of the courtroom when the boy was taken away.
A third child, who has the same father as Semaj Crosby, remains in the hospital. The 8-year-old boy was hospitalized for unknown reasons prior to his sister’s death and also was placed in shelter care. The child’s father, James Crosby, was in jail at the time of Semaj’s death and was released last week.
Family members, including two of the three fathers involved in the case, were present at the hearing but declined to comment.
Two Will County sheriff officials also attended the hearing, but they did not participate.
As for what brought them all to court, an attorney read a stipulation that Semaj died of "unexplained causes or circumstances." No one has been charged with any wrongdoing in her death.
Visitation services for Semaj Crosby will be Friday from 9 to 11 a.m. at Prayer Tower Ministries Church of God in Christ, 500 Stryker Ave. in Joliet, the Minor-Morris Funeral Home website said. A Celebration of Life will be held at the church at 11 a.m. and will be followed by interment services at Elmhurst Cemetery in Joliet.
Alicia Fabbre is a freelance reporter. Christy Gutowski is a Tribune reporter.