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DCFS releases details of 8-year-old’s death as hearing on 30-year-old consent decree looms

DCFS releases details of 8-year-old’s death as hearing on 30-year-old consent decree looms

Department had contact with Navin Jones’ family beginning at birth

By BETH HUNDSDORFER
Capitol News Illinois
bhundsdorfer@capitolnewsillinois.com

SPRINGFIELD – In the weeks before 8-year-old Navin Jones died, the Department of Children and Family Services had investigated his parents for nabbing him from his legal guardian and had received a hotline call reporting that the child didn’t go to school and was berated, bruised and starved.

It’s the latest death of a child who had contact with DCFS. Since December, at least five children have died after contact with the state’s child protection agency. They are Damari Perry, 6, of North Chicago; Sophia Faye Davis, 1, of Dawson; Zaraz Walker, 1, of Bloomington; and Tamsin Miracle Sauer, 3, of Nelson.

The department released a summary of its contact with Navin’s family last week. Reports into the other child deaths have yet to be released, so it’s unclear how much contact the agency had with those children. 

“The death, abuse or neglect of any child Illinois is a tragedy, and the Department of Children and Family Services is continuously working to protect vulnerable children and help strengthen families in crisis,” DCFS spokesman William McCaffrey said in a statement. “Under the current administration the child welfare system in Illinois has made significant, measurable progress in the past three years, including hiring more employees, increasing support for our private partners and addressing some of the longstanding challenges facing the department after years of neglect.”

The department released the details of Navin’s death as it prepared for a Thursday hearing before a federal judge on the status of a 30-year-old consent decree that ordered reforms at the department.   

The consent decree filed in the case known as B.H. v. Smith sought to reduce caseloads, improve safety of children, protect adequate agency funding, implement better training for caseworkers and private agency staff, and reorganize DCFS systems of supervision and accountability.

But three decades later, as many of the problems persist, calls for court mandated intervention enforcing the resulting consent decree are growing.

As well, since January, DCFS Director Marc Smith has been cited eight times for contempt of court for failing to comply with court orders to place DCFS wards in proper settings.

On Tuesday, when asked about the recent deaths of children that had been contacted by DCFS, Gov. JB Pritzker said he was “deeply concerned” about fixing the agency which he said had been “decimated” and left “hundreds of employees short” by the time he took office.

“We have added one thousand employees during my time in office,” he said. “We have reduced the caseload, although the total number of cases has increased, the caseload per employee has reduced. Having said that, there’s much more work to be done.”

Pritzker on Tuesday said the problems with DCFS have spanned multiple administrations.

So too has the investigation into the family of Navin Jones, according to the report released by the department last week.

 

DCFS involved from birth

When Navin Jones was born in December 2013, he came into a family already familiar with DCFS.

Navin’s older half-brother, Nigel, died in 2007. The official cause of death was sudden infant death syndrome, but DCFS found the baby might have been in an unsafe sleeping situation.

Another older sibling to Navin was born prematurely in 2010 and was placed in foster care. He was returned to his parents, Stephanie Jones and Brandon Walker, two years later.  

When Navin was born three years later, he tested positive for narcotics, the report stated. DCFS took custody of Navin and his brother at the time. They were placed in the care of Walker’s mother, the children’s paternal grandmother, who was granted legal guardianship in 2017.

That placement did not end the calls to the DCFS hotline, which in 2017 received several reports regarding the family. One of those reports found that in December of 2017 Jones “spanked” Navin, then 4 years old, causing bruises to his buttocks.

Then, for nearly four years, things were quiet between DCFS and the Jones-Walker family. In the summer of 2021, a family emergency in Florida caused the grandmother to return Navin and his brother to their parents. For weeks, the grandmother, who had legal custody, sought the children’s return, but DCFS and the police did not secure their return.

 

Family avoids DCFS, then flees

For six months, Walker and Jones played cat and mouse with DCFS and police, promising to return the children, making appointments with child protection workers and not keeping them, not answering the door when a DCFS worker came to call and eventually fleeing the state with the children.

Their grandmother returned from Florida in August, just before school started, and tried to get them back.

On Aug. 17, she went to the home in Peoria where the boys were staying with Walker and Jones. She later reported to DCFS that she had looked through the window of the home and saw trash, clutter and old food throughout. She sent a text asking Jones to return the children.

Jones refused to return the children and ordered her mother-in-law off the property.

Peoria police were called. The grandmother explained that she was the legal guardian of both children. Jones told the grandmother that she would never see the children again. The grandmother showed police her guardianship papers.

Jones told the police that she had taken care of the older child for two years and Navin for the summer. She contended the grandmother was angry and trying to “exert her power,” the report stated.

The police officer told the grandmother the boys were fine and left, according the DCFS report.

That night, the children stayed with Jones and Walker.

DCFS returned to the house the next day to check on the children. There was no answer at the door. The next day, they returned again. No answer.

Caseworkers checked at the local school. The children weren’t registered.

The grandmother lived in Washington in Tazewell County. She went to her local police on Aug. 19 and asked for their help. A police detective called Walker, who agreed to return the children to his mother that night. He did not.

Two days later, Walker told Washington Police that Jones had taken the children to Chicago and he would return them on Aug. 23. He did not.

On Aug. 24, the grandmother formalized her complaints and filed missing person reports on the children. Walker told the detective that he did not care what the paperwork said and he was not returning the children, the report stated.

The next day, Washington Police told the grandmother and DCFS that they had reason to believe the children were with Walker and Jones in Florida.

For about six weeks, the agency and police kept watch for the family in Illinois, but with no fresh leads into their whereabouts, it appeared they had left the state, the report stated. In telephone conversations, Walker refused to give the police or DCFS his address but said the family might return to Illinois in October for a doctor’s appointment. Walker would allow DCFS to see the boys then.

DCFS called the doctor’s office. There was no appointment scheduled.

On Nov. 4, with the whereabouts of the children unknown to the legal guardian, DCFS or police, the case was closed. The whereabouts of the children were unknown.

 

Back in Illinois

The family resurfaced during an anonymous call to the DCFS hotline on Feb. 14. The caller reported Navin and his older sibling were not going to school. The boys were dirty. Navin had two black eyes.  

The report went on to say that while the older child went to work with his father, Navin was left with his mother during the day and occasionally locked in the basement so she could nap. The caller also said Navin got in trouble for getting up in the middle of the night and eating chicken meant to feed the family dogs.

The report stated that DCFS launched another investigation based on the call. The worker contacted the police and learned about the August investigation. The worker contacted the school and learned that neither child was enrolled in school.

On Feb. 15, the worker went to the house, knocked on the door and did not get an answer. The worker left a card. After the worker left, Walker called. Everything was fine, he told her. The family returned from Florida in January. The children weren’t in school because Walker didn’t have the paperwork to sign them up. Walker admitted that he took the older child to work with him, but the child enjoyed it. Walker agreed to allow the DCFS investigator to come and see the children on Feb. 18.

In the meantime, another call came into the hotline. The caller said Walker was there on Feb. 15 when the DCFS investigator came to the door but would not let the investigator inside to interview the children. Navin had two black eyes after falling down the stairs, Walker had told the caller.

That call prompted another visit to the Walker-Jones home the next day – two days before the scheduled Feb. 18 appointment. The child abuse investigator’s knock went unanswered, the report stated.

When the day of the appointment came, the investigator came to the door and knocked. No answer. The investigator called Walker, who told them that the appointment had slipped his mind. He asked to reschedule on Feb. 22, nearly eight days after the original hotline call.

During that scheduled appointment at the family home, Navin looked thin and “sickly,” the investigator noted, but Walker and Jones told the worker that Navin ate all the time but couldn’t gain weight. The shelves were stocked with snacks and the boy was eating popcorn during the interview, the summary stated.

Both children denied any abuse. Both said they wanted to stay with their parents, instead of returning to their grandmother.

Walker and Jones asked the investigator for help. They needed guardianship to get the kids into school, to take them to the doctor. The investigator agreed to help them get short-term guardianship.

Two weeks later, DCFS spoke to the grandmother. She was frustrated that the children were not returned to her care. The investigator asked the grandmother to sign short-term guardianship paperwork. She complied with their request on March 14.

On March 29, there was a 911 call. Navin was unresponsive. A pile of urine-soaked sheets was found near his bed. His door was tied with rope. An exam revealed the 8-year-old weighed 38 pounds. He had ligature marks, a sign of restraint. He had bedsores on his back.

Navin was pronounced dead at a Peoria hospital.

Peoria County Coroner Jamie Harwood called the death of Navin Jones one of the worst cases of child abuse he had seen in his career.

Stephanie Jones, Navin’s mother, and Brandon Walker, Navin’s father, both face first-degree murder charges in connection with the boy’s death. They are being held in Peoria County Jail in lieu of $1 million bail.

Navin’s death sparked renewed interest into the death of his half-brother, Nigel Ragon, who died in 2007. A suspicious coroner decided to reinvestigate the baby’s death.

Nigel was three months old when his father found him unresponsive on a futon in their Washburn home. Jones was with the child when he became unresponsive. Nigel was pronounced dead at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center. Nigel’s death was found to be natural, caused by “SIDS.”

But now, advances in medical techniques can help investigators make more precise determination on the cause of death, Harwood said. He will work with Illinois State Police and the Peoria County state’s attorney’s office to take a fresh look at the case.  On Monday, Harwood was waiting for evidence from Nigel’s case from the Woodford County Sheriff’s Department.

“I think there’s a lot more to the story and that’s why we are investigating,” Harwood said.

 

30-year-old promises

In the midst of the investigations into the recent child deaths, there looms a status hearing into a 30-year-old agreement DCFS made to settle a lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of a foster child.

Since the last status hearing on the consent decree on Nov. 16, Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert said there are additional indicators of continued systemic failures at the agency.

On Monday, Golbert sent a letter to U.S. District Court Judge Jorge L. Alonso, who will preside over Thursday’s status hearing. The letter, obtained by Capitol News Illinois, stated it was regarding “DCFS continued failures to abide by its 30-year-old promises under the consent decree and the urgent need for systemic enforcement.”

Golbert outlined the eight times DCFS Director Smith has been found in contempt of court for failing to abide by court orders to move children out of locked psychiatric hospitals and emergency placements into appropriate settings. This situation is not isolated, Golbert noted, and has caused the establishment of what is known as the “beyond medical necessity” or “stuck kids” docket.

“This is unprecedented. I have been with the office more than 30 years and cannot recall the Cook County Juvenile Court ever before creating an ongoing consolidated docket because a problem with DCFS has become so widespread,” Golbert wrote. “This, standing alone, demonstrates what a mess DCFS has become.”

In his latest contempt ruling against Smith on March 24, Cook County Judge Patrick Murphy wrote, “DCFS seems to have no strategy on how to deal with this crisis although it has been years in the making.”

And since that last status hearing in November, the department has seen the five child deaths, along with the murder of DCFS investigator Deidre Silas.

Pritzker said Tuesday that DCFS added 1,000 workers to the payroll during his administration.  In a motion filed in the B.H. consent decree last month, DCFS said the agency 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 a dozen investigators. With resignations and retirements and increasing caseloads, Golbert wrote in the letter that it’s doubtful DCFS will meet the staffing mandates by 2024.

Golbert, whose office represents 7,000 Cook County children in the child protection system, asked Alonso to impose stiffer enforcement measures to make the agency keep its promises.

“What is needed is systemic relief. It is needed now,” Golbert wrote. “DCFS must be held to the reforms it promised in the 30-year-old consent decree, but has failed to deliver on.”

 

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government that is distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

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