Peoria County Coroner Jamie Harwood admits he has seen a lot of horrible things in his 20 years as an emergency room nurse in Chicago trauma centers and five years he has served as county coroner.
But he said he has never seen a worse case of child abuse and neglect than he saw Tuesday.
Harwood was the coroner in the case of 8-year-old Navin Jones, who died Tuesday evening at OSF Healthcare St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria. Navin was in the care of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, but his body was found at his parents’ home. Jones’ family had been in contact with DCFS before his death, according to DCFS spokesman William McCaffrey.
Stephanie Jones, 35, and Brandon Walker, 40, Navin’s parents, face first-degree murder charges in connection with the boy’s death.
“I think there should be a hefty internal investigation by DCFS into this case,” Harwood said. “And if there were failures, those should be remedied.”
The Peoria Journal Star reported Peoria County State’s Attorney Dave Kenny said during the arraignment for Navin’s parents the boy weighed 30 pounds and was living in deplorable conditions. The child was last seen in late October or early November, when was in “relatively good health,” according to the newspaper report.
Harwood declined to comment on Navin’s condition at the time of his death, citing the pending investigation, but did say the cause of his death was homicide and the manner was abuse and neglect.
Eighty miles due north of Peoria in Nelson, another coroner was investigating the death of 3-year-old Tamsin Miracle Sauer. She died in a Sterling hospital in Whiteside County on Saturday. The manner and cause of her death is still under investigation.
Tamsin’s family also had contact with DCFS, McCaffrey said.
Also on Tuesday, DCFS Director Marc Smith filed the first annual report on the department’s plan to address investigator caseloads as a requirement of a federal consent decree. That report, filed in a court document, showed there is a current statewide rolling vacancy percentage of 21 percent, and DCFS has a goal of reducing it to 6% or less.
DCFS stated in the report they are aggressively hiring, having added 198 investigators to the payroll since March 2021, but due to the high number of employees leaving and retiring, the overall headcount went up by only a dozen investigators.
The agency pointed to the COVID-19 pandemic and a labor crisis, coupled with rising child abuse investigations across the state, as obstacles to meeting that goal.
Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert, whose office represents about 7,100 children in state care, said Thursday that if DCFS had been keeping up with hiring over the past few decades it would not be in such straits now.
“It’s clear that when DCFS’s investigators labor under untenable caseloads without the supports that they need, in violation of court orders, both children and the investigators alike are at risk of serious harm and even death,” Golbert said in a phone call. “I fear that until DCFS gets its investigator caseloads down to reasonable levels, as mandated under a federal court order that is now more than 30 years old, we will continue to see children harmed.”
Investigator’s death impedes hiring
Golbert also mentioned the January death of DCFS investigator Deidre Silas as an impediment to hiring.
“If the investigators have caseloads that are too high, that’s dangerous for kids and for workers,” Golbert said.
In the motion filed by DCFS on Tuesday, the 12-month average of investigations in March 2021 was 6,535. That rose to 7,726 in March 2022. An increase in reporting may be attributable to children having more contact with mandated reporters, such as teachers and doctors, as the pandemic eases. The increase may also be attributable to an increase in family stress, such as financial pressures.
In addition to recruiting and retention efforts, DCFS is conducting weekend “blitzes,” moving staff from other locations to volunteer for weekend shifts to help with completing investigations. In DCFS’s northern region, the agency conducted 13 blitzes where 148 staff worked a combined 2,500 weekend hours to help with investigations.
Last year, the court granted a three-year extension to DCFS to meet caseworker hiring goals. The parties agreed to make changes in 1991, but 30 years later the agency is still struggling to be in full compliance with the decree.
The deaths of Navin and Tamsin are the latest cases of children who have died after having contact with DCFS. Since January, Sophia Faye Davis, 1; Damari Perry, 6; and Zaraz Walker, 7 months, have died from child abuse.
In addition, DCFS Director Smith has faced eight contempt of court citations from a Cook County Judge. The contempt citations are based on improper placements for children in state care.
Last week, Smith was cited for contempt for the eighth time from Cook County Circuit Judge Patrick Murphy.
The latest case involves a 14-year-old girl who entered DCFS care in September. She has been in 21 placements in her time with DCFS, according to a release by the Cook County Public Guardian’s Office. Those placements included time in a locked psychiatric ward, hospital emergency rooms, emergency foster homes and, most recently, in a temporary shelter. In December, DCFS recommended a residential placement for the girl.
More on cases
In two of the eight cases, the contempt order was purged when the kids were placed in their recommended setting. Those two cases involved:
An 8-year-old girl placed in a locked psychiatric hospital unnecessarily for more than seven months.
A 13-year-old boy kept in a “temporary” shelter in Mt. Vernon – nearly five hours away from his family – for nearly five months. Before the shelter, DCFS placed him in a utility room in an office.
In the other five previous cases, the contempt order remains in place and the children remain in their present settings. Those cases involve:
A 17-year-old boy who was placed in a locked psychiatric hospital for more than four months beyond medical necessity.
A 16-year-old girl housed in 25 different places in two months, including hospitals, emergency shelters, a shelter in Indiana, and temporary foster homes. Before that, she was in a locked psychiatric hospital for nearly two months after it was recommended that she be moved.
An 11-year-old girl medically approved for discharge from a locked psychiatric hospital for nearly a year waiting for a transfer to a residential placement.
A 15-year-old girl placed in a locked psychiatric hospital since December 6, 2021 — approximately three months waiting for transfer to a specialized foster home.
A 16-year-old boy who spent more than 375 days in a temporary shelter that was unable to meet his highly specialized needs given his low intellectual function.
‘We were lucky’
Each of the seven children in these cases is represented by the Cook County public guardian’s office. The orders for contempt were signed by Judge Murphy, who served for 25 years as the Cook County Public Guardian.
Harwood, the coroner in Navin’s case, knows about DCFS. He and his husband became foster parents in 2017 and eventually adopted his son, Jacob, who was taken into state care after he was born prematurely to a mother who struggled with addiction.
When Jacob’s biological mother died from drug exposure months after his birth, Harwood was the responding coroner. Harwood said he’s troubled by the death of the 8-year-old who died in his county Tuesday, while grateful for his own son, who was once a state ward.
“We were lucky. He is our miracle,” Harwood said.
Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.