The memorial was once a vibrant display of flowers, dozens of toys and bright pink ribbon laced around the bark of a regal tree, with a wooden cross at the base bearing the name Sema’j Crosby encircled in a red heart.

Today, the ribbon is torn in a few spots and intermingled with yellow caution tape, draped listlessly from the trunk. The various toys — a football, stuffed animals, a little car — are broken or hidden from view beneath leaves near the tree’s exposed roots.

The wooden cross, decorated with the name of the little girl it honored, is no longer present.

Gone, too, is the house that stood behind the tree.

Five years ago on Monday — April 25, 2017 — 17-month-old Sema’j Crosby was reported missing from her Joliet Township home. A frantic search ensued, with police, FBI agents and hundreds of volunteers hunting for the toddler in the area near her home at 309 Louis Road as well as the surrounding neighborhood.

Her lifeless body was discovered about 30 hours later, wedged underneath a couch inside her home.

Sema’j was pronounced dead at the scene at 1:27 a.m. on April 27, 2017. The Will County coroner’s office later ruled the death a homicide by asphyxia. While authorities had said there were no signs of blunt force trauma on the toddler’s body, the coroner’s office noted the “unusual circumstances surrounding her disappearance and the subsequent discovery of her decomposing body under a couch in her own home.”

“When Sema’j was found, she was surrounded by strangers,” a lawyer for the child’s mother told the Tribune years ago. “It was dark. It was cold. To be found like that … that just robbed what little dignity that she had. Someone should be held accountable for that.”

Yet five years later, no charges have been filed. The Will County prosecutor’s office declined to comment, saying the case is still open. The county coroner’s office refused to release the full autopsy report, citing the ongoing investigation.

Dan Jungles, a deputy chief in the Will County sheriff’s office, said the agency still receives and follows up on tips in the case. The lead detective has a photograph of Sema’j on his desk, he said, as a “constant reminder” of the crime and the importance of solving it.

“No one is more deeply invested in wanting to solve this case than we are,” Jungles said.

But he added that the people who were in the home that day have not cooperated, with the exception of Sema’j’s mother, who has given interviews and information to police. Without a confession, or cooperation from key witnesses, the case remains difficult to solve, he said.

“There is no doubt in my mind that more than one person knows what happened,” he said.

The homicide ignited outrage at the state’s child welfare system.

Just hours before Sema’j was reported missing, a state Department of Children and Family Services worker had visited the squalid, bug-infested home, telling the little girl’s mother to clean up the house. The DCFS employee had seen Sema’j and two siblings with “no obvious hazards or safety concerns at the time,” a DCFS spokeswoman told the Tribune in 2017.

A follow-up visit was supposed to occur in a few days.

By that time, Sema’j would already be dead.

A 22-page DCFS report released in May 2017 exposed repeated agency failures before the toddler’s death. Several adults in the home had allegedly abused children on various occasions previously; the state agency enacted no safety plans to protect minors under their care, even as new claims surfaced.

Anonymous callers had reported open drug dealing and violence occurred in the house. But DCFS investigators would close cases when adults in the home told them the children were safe and supervised, accusing the tipsters of making false reports.

State lawmakers pledged to fix the broken system. Officials at DCFS vowed reform.

Yet a series of high-profile fatalities of children followed, many eerily similar to the Sema’j case in that their households and guardians had been repeatedly investigated by child welfare workers prior to their deaths.

Since December, five children have died while being served by the state’s child protection agency.

Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert, whose office legally represents more than 7,000 children involved in the child welfare system, said that problems at DCFS have only exacerbated in the last five years.

“Everything is actually, believe it or not, worse now,” he said in an interview with the Tribune. “By just about any metric of how DCFS is doing that you can look at, DCFS is doing much worse than they were five years ago when they dropped the ball many times, resulting in Semaj Crosby’s death.”

DCFS Director Marc Smith disagreed with that assessment of his agency, adding that DCFS has recently increased preventive services statewide, worked to revamp and restructure the system of accessing community residential facilities, and has been hiring aggressively to shore up the number of caseworkers and investigators.

“Anytime we have a tragedy where a child dies, our hearts are broken,” he said, adding that he could not comment on individual cases. “It’s really the thing that drives us in our work to strive to be the support that the children of the state of Illinois need.”

Yet he added that any time a minor dies of abuse or neglect, “it is really a reflection of things that are going on in the bigger picture of society,” including poverty, crime, drug abuse and a growing mental health crisis.

The day after Sema’j was buried, flames engulfed the home where her body was found, burning the structure to the ground.

A local fire chief told the Tribune at the time that arson was “most likely” the cause of the blaze, but no charges have been filed in connection with the fire, according to the East Joliet Fire Protection District.

“It just hurts my heart,” a neighbor said at the time. “(Sema’j) was just laid down at peace, and someone wants to burn the house where her spirit was last.”

Now the memorial tree — in the front yard where the house at 309 Louis Road once stood — remains the last vestige of Sema’j at the scene, commemorating her short life and unsolved death.

A small metal angel with the word “serenity” on its dress is still affixed to the trunk, one of the few parts of the tribute that isn’t crumbling, dirty or worn.

“For two days we were held in utter suspense of where this baby could be,” recalled Mireya Reyes, a member of the group Justice for Semaj Action Team, which has held rallies to call attention to the case and prayer vigils to remember the victim. “For the past five years, we have said, ‘We see you, Sema’j. We love you, Sema’j.’ We don’t want to see any more Sema’j cases in Will County.”

Reyes said she would want the little girl to know she wasn’t forgotten.

“We all prayed for her,” she said. “She will not get justice until someone comes forward with details of what happened.”

Hundreds of mourners filed past the little white casket covered with an ornate spray of pink and white flowers, flanked by balloons of the same colors. A “princess” sign was hung from the bottom of the coffin.

A photo of Sema’j on display at her May 5, 2017, visitation and funeral showed the wide-eyed, chub-cheeked toddler dressed in pink, with tiny pink barrettes clipping her dark braids.

Bishop Warren Dorris vividly remembers the service at Prayer Tower Ministries Church of God in Christ in Joliet.

The church, which seats about 900 people, was standing room only. Later, at the cemetery, a flock of white doves was released, he said.

Dorris, who is a distant cousin of the family’s but never met Sema’j in life, eulogized the little girl, trying to comfort a stunned community.

“It’s a day that we will all remember, seeing that young child in that little white coffin,” he said. “She never got to realize the great things in life.”

He also took part in the search for Sema’j, before authorities found her body. He recalled walking down streets in the neighborhood with other community members, looking for any sign of her.

But Dorris noticed that every time police brought out search dogs, the dogs led them right back to the family home.

“She did not get in that couch herself,” he said. “Someone did that. The community needs to know, and the family needs to know.”

The little girl’s mother, Sheri Gordon, had called 911 to report her child missing.

“Oh, my God, no,” she cried into the phone during the April 25, 2017, call, at times hyperventilating. “Where’s my daughter?”

Neighbors and family members told investigators they’d seen the toddler that afternoon, walking down the street. After investigators couldn’t find Sema’j during an initial search of the home, they shifted to the possibility that she had wandered off or was taken by someone.

More than a day later, Sema’j was found dead under the couch, which weighed about 100 pounds. There was only roughly 2 ½ inches of space between the couch and floor, leading investigators to believe that Sema’j was placed there shortly after her death.

Her body was recovered lying partially face down, with roaches crawling over her face, according to authorities.

Soon after, the Will County sheriff’s office named five “persons of interest” in the case: Gordon, the mother of Sema’j; the child’s paternal grandmother, Darlene Crosby; an aunt, Lakerisha Crosby; a family friend; and a minor who was present at the home.

Gordon’s other three children were removed from her care by state child welfare workers; the grandmother and aunt, who had pending DCFS cases as well, also had children removed from their care following the girl’s homicide.

”Even though Sema’j is not with us anymore, she is not forgotten,” Gordon said in a written statement to the Tribune, sent from her attorney. “It is my continuing hope that the truth will come out and those responsible for Sema’j’s death and those who concealed her death are held accountable. I also want to thank everyone who’s kept Sema’j close to their hearts.”

Jungles, of the sheriff’s office, was among those called out to the house the day Sema’j went missing. Family members reported they saw her down the block from the home, so police initially thought it was a case of a child who wandered away.

As the afternoon ended and the sky grew darker, the mood became somber, Jungles said. Authorities knew finding the child safe was becoming less likely.

“Once we got through all that searching and didn’t come up with anything, that’s when we realized this isn’t a little girl that wandered away,” he said.

Officers eventually turned their attention back to the home, and after receiving permission to search the house from the mother’s lawyer, they found Sema’j under the couch.

In 2018, Sema’j’s father, James Crosby, sued the child’s mother and Children’s Home and Aid Society of Illinois, a DCFS contractor assigned to the household, alleging that their negligence led to his daughter’s death. James Crosby had been in Will County Jail when Sema’j’s body was discovered.

James Crosby’s attorney, Jay Paul Deratany, also criticized the Will County sheriff’s office’s handling of the case, saying sheriff’s employees should have secured the home immediately when Sema’j was reported missing rather than allowing people to enter the house to search for her.

“They’re completely disorganized and uncooperative, and their actions will probably ultimately result in letting those who caused the death of Sema’j to go free,” Deratany said.

The sheriff’s office said authorities initially didn’t know the home was a crime scene because the family had reported Sema’j was seen outside the home. Jungles said it has been family members, with the exception of the mother, who have been uncooperative, not police. He acknowledges his agency has not turned over some records, but said that’s necessary to preserve the ongoing investigation.

Terry Morris, funeral director at Minor-Morris Funeral Home in Joliet, recalled arranging services for Sema’j.

“A short life — there’s really no words to describe it,” he said. “It’s sad, but you move on and hope it never happens again to anyone.”

A rattle, moon and stars are etched on the pink granite headstone marking Sema’j’s grave at Elmhurst Cemetery in Joliet.

Next to her name, the epitaph reads: Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

A few days after Sema’j’s death, during a hearing on placement for her siblings, a Will County judge criticized DCFS and its caseworkers who had visited the home prior to the homicide.

The agency had 11 abuse or neglect investigations into the household, investigations that were handled by at least four DCFS workers, agency officials had said.

“What did they do to help the family and to help these children?” Judge Paula Gomora had said, adding that caseworkers missed obvious signs of trouble in the household. “Quite honestly, from what I saw, I don’t know how any caseworker could’ve walked into that house and let those children stay.”

Yet some experts say problems at the agency have only worsened.

“It’s just mind-boggling how DCFS continues to spiral worse and worse and worse every year,” said Golbert, the Cook County public guardian.

In fiscal 2021, there were 356 children under DCFS care kept in psychiatric care beyond medical necessity, he said. Smith has been held in contempt eight times this year for failing to follow court orders to find appropriate placements for children in a timely manner.

“This is all unprecedented,” Golbert said.

The agency is also severely understaffed: The statewide vacancy rate for investigators is at about 21.2% now, compared with about 8.8% last year; the target vacancy rate for the agency is 6%, Golbert said.

Smith said the agency has been “hiring at full blast,” adding that in terms of raw numbers, DCFS has more investigators now than in over a decade.

In previous years, the state had drastically decreased the number of residential beds at facilities for children with mental health and behavioral concerns; there were also challenges with the types of facilities or placements that were open, he said.

“The spots that were available did not match the needs that we had,” he said. “One of the things that we had to do when I first got here was revamp the residential bed contracts and expectations, as a consumer.”

In the last three years, Smith said the agency has increased the amount of money provided to residential facility providers by more than 50%.

“That’s huge,” he said. “That’s a big change in a system that’s been starved for years. … But you cannot go year after year where you took away resources across the state and then think that instantaneously DCFS will be able to help those communities rebuild those services.”

In January, DCFS child protection specialist Diedre Silas was stabbed to death while responding to a call about potentially endangered children at a home in Thayer, south of Springfield.

DCFS policies allow investigators to request that another employee or investigator accompany them on visits where they might feel unsafe or possibly at risk.

“When you have such a shortage of investigators the reality is no one is going to ask for this,” Golbert said. “Because they know there won’t be another investigator to go with you.”

Smith, who used to be a DCFS investigator, said that is not the case.

“When it comes to safety and making decisions about when to go into a home and when to be alone or when not to, staff knows that there is no limit to that,” he said, adding that police can also accompany investigators if there are safety concerns.

Both Smith and Golbert described the job of a child welfare worker as incredibly difficult.

“They are always making judgments on their feet,” Golbert said. “To do that while you’re laboring under a wholly untenable caseload in an inept bureaucracy without the supports you need, it’s not surprising we have had so many child deaths in the last few months.”

These include 6-year-old Damari Perry of North Chicago; 1-year-old Sophia Faye Davis of Sangamon County; 7-month-old Zaraz Walker of Bloomington; 3-year-old Tamsin Miracle Sauer of Nelson; and 8-year-old Navin Jones of Peoria.

As for the Sema’j case, Tiffany Perteet of Joliet recalled scouring the neighborhood for the little girl with hundreds of other volunteers five years ago.

Perteet, a member of the Justice for Semaj Action Team, used to live a few blocks from the little girl’s home.

Sometimes she still drives by the site where the house once stood, with the remnants of the memorial tree out front.

“Every time I drive past it, I just know that little baby’s soul is still there,” she said.




Source link

By admin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *