JOLIET TOWNSHIP – What actually killed Sema’j Crosby and what led to those circumstances are under investigation since the 1-year-old girl was found dead last week in her Joliet Township home.
“This is a horrific case,” Department of Children and Family Services Director George Sheldon said Friday. “I want to find out – the same as the community does – what happened, what we could’ve done to prevent it.”
The girl was reported missing the evening of April 25 from her home in the 300 block of Louis Road in the Preston Heights area. Investigators and volunteers searched the neighborhood the next day, but her body was found around midnight April 27 under a couch after police were allowed to search the house. The Will County Coroner’s Office has said further testing is needed to determine how Sema’j died and that those reports will take four to five weeks.
As of Saturday, no one had been charged in connection with her death.
“Pathology exams are relatively quick, but toxicology does take awhile,” said Lynn Tovar, professor of justice, law and public safety at Lewis University.
Unlike portrayals in movies and TV, investigation “is a slow, methodical process,” Tovar said.
“If it is a criminal case, you’re going to need proper evidence for a solid case,” she said. “Police can ask a lab to expedite a case, but [lab personnel] aren’t going to rush their work that they’ll need to defend in court.”
The Will County Sheriff’s Office has placed a request to expedite any lab results.
Will County State’s Attorney’s Office spokesman Charles Pelkie said top prosecutors are holding a daily review with sheriff’s investigators.
“We’re working closely with the sheriff’s department as they develop theories of the case based on where the evidence takes them, and those don’t come together instantaneously,” Pelkie said.
Besides processing evidence at the scene, investigators also have to coordinate statements from those who were around the house. Sema’j’s mother, Sheri Gordon, was renting the house and living there with four of her children, but there were also several “squatters” staying at the home at different times, according to Will County sheriff’s police.
The Will County Probation Office visited the house 40 times in the past year, while sheriff’s deputies went there on 14 occasions. Reports were made five times, including when Sema’j was reported missing.
“Nine other visits to the home did not warrant a written report, such as the two times in one day deputies delivered Easter baskets to the home,” spokeswoman Kathy Hoffmeyer wrote in a statement.
The house burned down in a fire early Saturday morning. An arson investigator is attempting to determine the cause and origin of the fire.
Sheriff’s Deputy Chief Rick Ackerson has described the home’s condition as “deplorable,” and the Will County Land Use Department tagged the residence as “unfit for occupancy.”
“The bedrooms had a large amount of clothing, garbage bags, discarded food containers [and] empty bottles in the middle of the floor and throughout the room,” the inspector noted. “The entire structure appeared unsanitary because of the heavily soiled carpets, walls, garbage and a serious degree of filth.”
A DCFS caseworker was at the residence about an hour before Sema’j disappeared but noted “no obvious hazards or safety concerns at that time,” spokeswoman Veronica Resa stated in an email.
According to DCFS documentation, any “mandated reporter” – such as a social worker, doctor, teacher, police officer or probation officer – is required to notify DCFS if they observe signs of abuse or neglect. Though parents must provide food, shelter and safety to maintain custody, children cannot be removed from a home merely on the basis of poverty.
Case managers from Children’s Home + Aid had been offering resources to the family since September. Their program includes weekly visits and coordinating with DCFS.
On Friday, Sheldon was in Joliet to meet with local officials and investigators in response to Sema’j’s death. State Sen. Pat McGuire, D-Joliet, said Sheldon told a senate committee earlier this week that Sema’j’s death will prompt a full review of her family’s case. That review will be completed within a week, McGuire said.
Sheldon said the internal review will track the agency’s actions and reports since Sema’j’s family first came to their attention.
“What steps did we take? Were there missteps?” Sheldon said. “Based on a cursory reading of the notes, I don’t see anything that would’ve warranted removal [of the children from the home].”
Sheldon also said the caseworker is “traumatized” she may have been able to prevent what happened. If it’s determined the child died at the hands of a caregiver, DCFS can release the complete records. Sheldon said if that is the case, he will consult with the state’s attorney’s office to ensure “nothing negatively impacts the criminal investigation” and then release them.
Tovar said even if the police investigation does not lead to homicide charges, the evidence still has to be processed for an endangerment or neglect case.
“[Whatever occurred] it’s a tragic situation what happened to this little girl. Hopefully we can piece together what happened,” Pelkie said.
Hoffmeyer said Friday that detectives will continue working on the case while awaiting lab results.
“Because of the nature of this case, it is and always has been, considered a criminal case ... opposed to a civil case,” she wrote. “No one is in custody. No one has been ruled a suspect, nor has any person been ruled out [as] a suspect.”