Making the call: DCFS rewards worker who ignored abuse
Rica Rountree’s survival hinged on how the adults outside her father’s abusive household reacted to the multiple injuries visible on her 8-year-old body in the weeks leading up to her 2019 death.
First to see the black eyes and bruises were teachers in Bloomington-Normal who reported the suspicious marks to the state DCFS hotline as part of their legal responsibility as mandated reporters. Educators, medical workers and law enforcement are among thousands of mandated reporters required to report signs of neglect and abuses.
In April 2018, staff at Fox Creek Elementary School called DCFS (the state’s child welfare agency) about Rica’s split lip, black eye and a broken tooth. When questioned, Rica denied anyone was hurting her and blamed the injuries on her clumsiness. The state determined the accusations to be “unfounded.”
Several months later, Rica’s family moved to Normal and she was enrolled in Prairieland Elementary School. When Rica’s teacher, Suzanne Schertz, sent the child to see the school nurse after she noticed a mark on the girl’s abdomen, DCFS investigated. The investigator again accepted the child’s explanation – a fall on some toys – for the injuries.
During the 12 days Rica attended the school, the teacher noticed her decline. Signs of distress were obvious.
“She was laying down on the carpet and looked really, really tired,” Schertz told the jury that convicted Cindy Baker, the girlfriend of Rica’s father Richard Rountree, of murder for fatally injuring the child.
In Rica’s case, mandated reporters alerted the state’s child welfare agency of potential serious abuse. They sounded the alarm bell repeatedly, only to have those alarms ignored or not thoroughly investigated by the agency tasked with doing so. Instead, the investigator who mishandled Rica’s case was promoted.
With their daily interactions with kids like Rica, teachers are some of the most important mandated reporters.
Unit 5 attorney Curt Richardson said all district staff are trained as mandated reporters and expected to take the obligation seriously. When it comes to signs of possible abuse or neglect, the directive is clear:
“If in doubt, call. Call immediately. It’s your duty. That’s really engrained into their heads,” said Richardson.
In instances where a staff member does not feel that a DCFS hotline worker plans to make a report of the allegation, Unit 5 will take additional steps.
“I contact the local DCFS office or law enforcement,” said Richardson. The school also may place a second call to the hotline in hopes of speaking with a different state worker.
Promotion for DCFS worker
Unfortunately for Rica, caseworkers with the state Department of Children and Family Services did not take action to remove her from the abusive home of her father and his girlfriend. An autopsy conducted after the child’s death on Jan. 26, 2019, showed 67 marks and abrasions on her body.
The cause of Rica’s death was peritonitis, a slow poisoning of the body caused by internal injuries later linked to blows by Baker.
Four months after Rica’s death, investigator Patricia Shannon was suspended seven days for her handling of Rica’s case. Shannon’s personnel records provided by DCFS in response to a public records request by WGLT outline 13 failures by the investigator in Rica’s case.
“You were negligent when you failed to recognize the heightened risks to the family, inclusive of extensive prior history with the Department and a paramour involved family,” DCFS management wrote in its disciplinary paperwork for the 14-year veteran of the agency.
The child’s teacher who reported the injuries was never interviewed by Shannon, and separate interviews of Baker and Richard Rountree were not conducted, in violation of DCFS policy. Shannon’s negligence included her failure to inquire or document questions about an injury to Rica’s eye that was reported to the state hotline.
An initial suspension of 15 days was halved as part of a grievance settlement that allowed the state worker to serve “4 actual, 3 paper” days off work.
The DCFS investigation and suspension related to Shannon’s performance in Rica’s case did not stop her from receiving a promotion to public service administrator. Her 2020 salary of $100,100 increased to $122,200, according to Illinois comptroller records.
The promotion, according to DCFS spokesman William McCaffery, was based on Shannon’s seniority rather than merit.
“The promotion was part of the overall system in which employees operate,” said McCaffery. Workers are allowed to bid for open positions based on union rules, he added.
Rica’s mother Ann Simmons has filed a federal lawsuit against DCFS alleging wrongful death and violation of the child’s civil rights. Simmons, who lost custody of Rica because of a drug arrest, cites failures by the agency to protect Rica from ongoing abuse.
In a comments to WGLT on the level of confidence the public has in the agency’s ability to protect children, DCFS spokesman William McCaffery said, “any time a family is brought to the attention of the the Department of Children and Family Services, the safety and health of the children is our first priority. When it’s safe to leave a child in their home or with a relative, we are committed to strengthening the family and working with them to resolve the crisis that brought them to the attention of the department. If there is an immediate threat, DCFS will place a child in protective custody.”
In recent comments to WGLT, McLean County prosecutors Erika Reynolds and Mary Koll cited a number of interactions between DCFS and school staff that could have changed the course of Rica’s abusive existence. Reliance on Rica’s explanation of the abuse was a serious mistake, said Koll.
“Abused children know acutely what is going to happen at home if they report what’s actually going on. While you know what the child is saying is one factor, we would urge mandated reporters to not hang their hat on what a potentially abused child is saying,” said the prosecutor.
In Reynolds’ view, “defaulting to the ‘if you see something, say something’ and using a common sense approach is appropriate.”
McLean County State’s Attorney Don Knapp said changes are needed.
“This is a real thing for the criminal justice system and social service systems – how they handle kids who are neglected and abused,” said Knapp. He likened those changes to the shift in domestic violence cases requiring victims to be separated from alleged abusers during questioning.
Knapp’s office has filed 25 abuse and neglect cases so far this year; a total of 87 cases were processed by the office in 2021.
Breaking down the calls
Between 2017 and 2021, the DCFS hotline received more than two million calls. In the first 10 months of the state’s 2022 fiscal year ending April 30, about 180,000 calls were placed to the agency’s hotline, according to DCFS records. A total of 79,197 of those calls related to suspected abuse and neglect. The majority of the remaining calls involved referrals for child welfare services and information related to pending investigations.
DCFS assigned 135,000 of the calls received so far in FY 2022 for some form of follow-up to child welfare services or staff handling a pending DCFS case.
No reports were taken in 14.4%, or 26,508, of the calls, all placed by mandated reporters, according to the state.
The reason no report was made in the calls from mandated reporters is related to two requirements that must be met in order for DCFS to become involved in a case, said Tierney Stutz, chief deputy director of child protection and the state central registry, or hotline.
“Anyone can call the hotline, which is how we want it. But we have very specific guidelines that must be followed,” said Stutz.
Under state rules, the alleged victim must be a minor and the person suspected of abuse must be a caretaker or hold a position of trust in order for DCFS to initiate an investigation. If either of those conditions are unmet, DCFS may refer the matter to law enforcement or another agency.
With nearly 180,000 calls received so far in FY 2022, hotline volume is slightly higher than this time last year, Stutz noted. The 14.4% of calls that did qualify for a report “is based on our authority,” she said.
Improvements to the state call center in the past two years include the ability to answer calls in “real time.” Calls from teachers, medical staff and law enforcement are routed to a hotline worker immediately, said Stutz.
“We take our mandated reporters seriously,” said Stutz.
The state also moved to a web-based reporting system that allows people the option to file reports of suspected abuse online. Stutz said the online reports often contain more detail than phone calls.
The majority of hotline reports are deemed unfounded, meaning no credible evidence of abuse was determined. Only about 1 in 4 hotline calls have resulted in a formal report and an investigation over the past four years.
When formal investigations do occur, only 4% result in children being removed from their homes, according to DCFS. When a child is moved, DCFS workers look to other relatives as their first choice of alternative homes. Keeping children close to home for parental visits and allowing them to stay in their classrooms is important, said Kevin Fitzgerald, retired 11th Judicial Circuit chief judge whose time on the bench included child abuse and neglect court.
“When you can’t find a proper placement for a child it presents a lot of barriers. Moving schools can be very disruptive,” said Fitzgerald.
Trained to make the call
Mandated reporters are required to complete training on when and how to report suspected abuse.
In the early 1990s, Susan Smith, a former professor with Illinois State University’s School of Social Work, was part of the Children’s Justice Task Force, a multi-disciplinary advisory team that developed the first DCFS training manual for mandated reporters.
In her conversations with educators, Smith found a range of opinions about the obligation to report abuse.
“In some schools, the principal wanted the final decision on whether something was called in. I remember talking to teachers who felt that if they thought it was a legitimate report, they should do it. Some mandated reporters may report easily while others only report when they see clear evidence of abuse,” said Smith.
The DCFS training developed by Smith’s team defines when the agency may legally investigate suspected abuse and neglect. The law requires mandated reporters to have “a reasonable cause to believe” a child has been injured, opening the door to a level of subjectivity as to what qualifies as abuse.
Officers with the Bloomington and Normal police departments are trained to identify and report suspected abuse, according to spokesmen for the agencies.
“We err on the side of caution, especially in domestic violence situations,” said former Normal chief Rick Bleichner. If a child is present in a home when an officer responds to a domestic disturbance, a call is made to the DCFS hotline, said Bleichner.
The recently retired chief acknowledged that “there’s some subjectivity there” when it comes to determining if a child has been abused. The Children’s Advocacy Center and other child welfare agencies may be a part of such an investigation, he said. The advocacy center has specially trained interviewers who question the children.
The undetected abuse in Rica’s case was “certainly a missed opportunity and a lot of the systems failed” the child, said Bleichner.
In 2017, Normal Police handled one of the calls in Rica’s case after her mother notified police of suspected abuse – the child being whipped with a belt by Rountree and his girlfriend. The child was returned to the abusive home after DCFS concluded that the allegation was related to an ongoing custody dispute between the child’s parents. DCFS later expunged the complaint from their records as unfounded.
Officers at the Bloomington Police Department notify DCFS when abuse is suspected.
“Our policy is ‘better safe than sorry.’ DCFS makes the final call,” said Bloomington Police spokesman Brandt Parsley.
Changes in how child abuse cases are reported has skewed the statistics collected by the city, but arrests against family members for endangering the life and health of a child totaled 30 in 2021 and 8 so far this year, said Parsley. Similar arrests involving non-family members were recorded against 11 in 2021 and 4 in 2022.
When police get involved, they often are the first to witness signs of physical abuse. Those are documented by medical staff, if a child goes to the hospital.
Bruises are the most common sign of possible child abuse, according to Lisa Slater, spokeswoman for Carle BroMenn Medical Center, but indications of more severe harm are also seen by doctors.
“Children may have orthopedic injuries, bruises, or x-ray evidence of repeated fractures. Shaken infant syndrome is associated with high death rates and physical injury,” said Slater.
“Other red flags warranting further investigation include bruises on uncommonly injured body surfaces, blunt-instrument marks or burns, human hand marks or bite marks and multiple injuries at different stages of healing,” said the hospital spokeswoman.
Carle employees who work with children are required to complete online training on mandated reporting within the first 90 days of the employment.
A more recent child death in Bloomington-Normal demonstrates the ongoing disconnect between mandated reporters and those they report to.
In July 2021, Carle staff reported concerns about Kimberlee Burton, a new mother who showed signs of “erratic behavior” two days after the birth of Zaraz Walker. DCFS deemed the report unfounded after meeting with the mother at DCFS offices.
In February 2022, a relative reported the baby missing after Burton went to jail on shoplifting charges. Burton, the mother of three young children, told police the infant died at home; she was charged with concealing a death. The baby was never found.
Burton had two previous interactions with DCFS, including a September 2020 investigation that was ruled “indicated” after Zaraz’s death, meaning credible evidence of abuse existed. The fact that the state had an open case at the time the baby died and issued a ruling shortly after the death investigation started is an example of the lengthy record that accompanies some child welfare cases. The record of when and how decisions were made is revealed as part of a timeline released after a child's death.
Burton was found mentally unfit to stand trial and is receiving mental health treatment in a state facility. A case involving custody of her two children is pending against Burton and the childrens’ father.
Copyright 2022 WGLT. To see more, visit WGLT.