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Murdered 8-year-old Normal girl was afraid to go home, watchdog says

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (WEEK) — An 8-year-old girl from Normal who was allegedly killed by her stepmother said she was afraid to go home after coming to school with a broken tooth and marks on her face.

Cynthia Baker, 41, is charged with the murder of Rica Rountree in January. She pleaded not guilty to the charges in court on May 3. 

 

Inspector General’s memo adds to breadcrumb trail of abuse allegations

In a memo written to the House Human Services Committee after an appropriations hearing last month, acting Illinois Department of Children and Family Services Inspector General Meryl Paniak said Rica Rountree came to school nine months before her death with marks on her face and neck and a broken tooth. She told the school she was afraid to go home.

The school reported the injuries, but the report was declared unfounded after the child said she hit her face on a medicine cabinet.

One month before her death, Rountree came to school with two black eyes in different stages of healing, Paniak wrote. Rountree said she fell on toys. McLean County prosecutors said DCFS had ordered Baker to take Rountree to a doctor.

Baker reportedly took Rountree to a doctor in Pontiac who was not her primary doctor. Prosecutors said Baker claimed the child was “just clumsy,” and later refused to take her for X-rays because her medical card was expired and she was too busy caring for her other kids.

DCFS deemed the abuse claim unfounded after Rountree’s father and stepmother gave the same story about falling on toys to explain her black eyes, Paniak wrote.

Baker then reportedly moved both Rountree and her own daughter to another school.

In July 2017, there was an unfounded investigation by DCFS alleging that Rountree was beaten with a belt. There were a total of 12 child abuse or neglect investigations conducted by the agency involving Rountree’s divorced parents and their significant others. Eight of them were declared unfounded by the agency.

Paniak said the parents had a history of domestic violence and drug use. In a divorce settlement, Rica’s father was awarded custody and was sent to live with him in late 2016.

At the time of Rountree’s death on January 26, Baker and the child’s father said the girl had been vomiting for two days before she collapsed and stopped breathing. She was taken to a hospital in Normal and life-flighted to Peoria, where she died.

Prosecutors said Baker kicked Rountree in the stomach so hard she suffered peritonitis due to intestinal perforation by blunt force trauma. 

In a statement originally issued by an DCFS spokesperson in March, the agency acknowledged a pending investigation into Rountree’s death and said “we are committed to understanding exactly what happened in this case and being fully transparent with the public.”

The spokesperson also said the agency is working with the Pritzker administration to review its practices, policies and procedures.

Baker is due in court again for a status hearing on May 17. Her bond is set at $1 million.

Problems continue with child welfare agency; solutions in sight

The Rountree case in Normal is one of 103 child deaths in cases involving DCFS reported in the first nine months of fiscal year 2019. Eleven of those deaths were declared homicides. In fiscal year 2018, 98 children involved with DCFS died. 

Paniak said in order to cut down on errors, management at DCFS must give investigators the resources they need to do their jobs.

“Investigative shortcuts occur when investigators are overburdened. Each shortcut has the potential of producing a lethal error, or what the error reduction literature calls a ‘near miss’ of a tragedy,” she wrote.

Paniak recommended DCFS management start with asking staff what they need to do their jobs effectively, then work to develop “robust training” for child protection investigators, intact caseworkers and supervisors. She also recommended the agency revisit recommendations made by her office in the past, such as moving from generic intact services to a more specialized approach, and making caseloads more manageable.

To that end, Gov. J.B. Pritzker has included funding for 126 additional caseworkers in his fiscal year 2020 budget. Pritzker also commissioned the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall to provide recommendations for reform to his new DCFS director, Marc D. Smith, within six weeks of his March 27 appointment. The agency has seen high turnover rates in the head office.

In the agency’s budget request. DCFS said it is beginning efforts to address quality and quantity concerns facing its private agency partners, and is offering longevity payments to long-time employees. DCFS said it is also looking to build a university-to-workforce career pipeline strategy.

Illinois Auditor General Frank Mautino released his office’s performance audit of DCFS earlier this week. Mautino found the agency violated the 1991 B.H. Consent Decree, which requires that each DCFS investigator be assigned no more than 12 new abuse or neglect investigations per month during nine months of each calendar year. During the other three months, the investigator cannot take on more than 15 new cases.

The auditor general found that 78.7 percent of caseworkers had at least one month where they received more than 15 primary assignments.

The agency receives an estimated 5,300 calls a week on its hotline. About 30 percent of them are referred for investigations. Mautino found the hotline is unable to take calls as they are received, resulting in a high rate of callbacks to people reporting child abuse or neglect. 55.7 percent of total calls received resulted in a callback in fiscal year 2017, Mautino reported. The department also does not maintain any records of callback information electronically for more than 90 days, making long-term analysis of callback data difficult, he said.

Mautino also found the department did not always follow procedures when conducting investigations. Mautino said investigators inaccurately rated the level of intervention needed in 42.7 percent of the 64 cases his office sampled from fiscal years 2015-17. In 65.3 percent of investigations sampled, there was a lack of documentation regarding whether any services were received by families, and how long those services lasted.

The agency’s timeliness for completing investigation suffered during the state’s two-year budget impasse, Mautino found, increasing from 7.6 percent of investigations still incomplete within 60 days in fiscal year 2015 to 12.4 percent by fiscal year 2017.

Mautino issued a list of 13 reform recommendations, including improving data recording, adhering to the B.H Consent Decree on worker caseloads, and working to more closely follow its own procedures. The department agreed with many of Mautino’s recommendations, and set self-imposed deadlines to meet some of them.

A group of lawmakers newly organized under the banner of the DCFS Child Welfare Reform Caucus announced a set of reforms earlier this week. 

“Too many children face unspeakable circumstances simply because the state cannot figure out how to better care for and protect them,” said state Rep. Sara Feigenholtz (D-Chicago), who leads the House Adoption and Child Welfare Committee. “The lives of many General Assembly members have been touched by our system of adoption, foster care and child welfare. All of us are sad and angry to see this string of tragedies. We must act.”

Senate Bill 193 seeks to demand higher-level reviews of cases involving non-school age children, and also bans incentives encouraging caseworkers to reunite families, even if doing so places the child at risk.

The agency has faced severe scrutiny following the death of Andrew “AJ” Freund of Crystal Lake. His body was found in a shallow grave nine days after police said he was beaten to death, and a week after his parents reported him missing.

His parents, Andrew Freund, Sr. and JoAnn Cunningham, pleaded not guilty to murdering their son on Friday. DCFS was involved with AJ since his birth, when he was born with opioids in his system.

Tim Shelley

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