They found him wrapped in a Superman T-shirt, his burned body so tiny that first responders thought he was 9 months old.
Authorities would later discover that 4-year-old Manuel Aguilar spent the last months of his life in the unheated storage room of a Southwest Side two-flat, naked and scared, pounding on the door to beg for food and water.
He was forced to sleep on the bare floor or in a kitty litter box, his siblings told police. Beaten and starved, he died alone with open eyes.
Then his mother, Alyssa Garcia, her teenage boyfriend and the boyfriend's relative stuffed Manny's 27-pound corpse in a bag of towels and clothes and lit the bundle on fire in the basement of an abandoned house in August 2016, Cook County prosecutors allege.
This wrenching drama of child abuse played out as the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services opened — and in some cases quickly closed — multiple investigations into outcries that Manny and his siblings were beaten and living in dangerous squalor.
Manny's DCFS files are riddled with shortcuts and failures, a Tribune investigation has found.
DCFS did not interview or even acknowledge the presence in the home of Garcia's violent, gang-involved boyfriend. When Garcia promised to take Manny to the doctor, DCFS did not follow up to learn that she didn't. In the years before Manny's homicide, his siblings told an agency caseworker about Garcia's violent abuse, but DCFS did not investigate their allegations.
The lapses in Manny's cases were not unique. A Tribune investigation of two other Cook County child fatalities since November 2015 found incomplete inquiries and nonexistent follow-ups as DCFS closed probes in the homes shortly before youths were beaten or starved to death. Investigators did not interview key witnesses, the Tribune found. They missed obvious signs of abuse and failed to gather medical reports and other evidence.
The Tribune investigation also found that after these three deaths occurred, DCFS pushed to close Cook County cases even faster, offering financial incentives to investigators who completed probes within 14 days. And the Tribune also found that, last year, investigators confirmed fewer cases for neglect or abuse compared with the previous year.
The Tribune findings come two years after Gov. Bruce Rauner appointed former Florida child welfare director George Sheldon to overhaul an Illinois agency beset with scandals, child deaths and charges of mismanagement.
Last week the Tribune reported that Sheldon is considering a job offer from a Miami nonprofit as he faces Illinois ethics probes into DCFS contracts that benefited his Florida friends and political associates.
With a potential exit looming, the reformer who inherited one mess may leave another.
Closing cases faster
DCFS was rattled last month by another fatality case when 17-month-old Semaj Crosby was found dead in her Joliet home in the midst of two DCFS investigations. Sheldon told state lawmakers he ordered a Quality Assurance Review of Semaj's case.
"If mistakes were made, we'll correct them," he told the Tribune. "I don't think you can slough off a child's death. It's too important."
Of the three child deaths examined by the Tribune, Sheldon said he did not know enough of the details to discuss them. Still, when DCFS closes an abuse or neglect investigation shortly before a child is killed, "then the system has failed in that case," he told the newspaper.
The Tribune investigation found that in the fall of 2016, Sheldon pushed investigators to speed up abuse and neglect investigations in Cook County, according to internal agency documents and interviews. Sheldon said his goal is to focus workers on the most serious allegations and free them from spurious cases that can be easily dismissed.
Some DCFS frontline investigators in Cook County tell the Tribune they now face unrealistic deadlines and new pressure to close cases even when young people are left in harm's way.
Those workers spoke on condition they not be identified because they are not authorized to speak about agency policy and some feared workplace retribution.
State law gives DCFS 60 days to complete investigations unless supervisors grant extensions because medical and police reports or other critical information is pending.
Starting last fall, under a new DCFS initiative called "Blue Star," DCFS tripled the percentage of Cook County abuse and neglect investigations closed within 14 days. The closure rate rose from about 5 percent per month to 15 percent by March 2017, a Tribune analysis of countywide agency data found.
Agency goals call for that percentage to double again for at least some Cook County teams: 30 percent of investigations should be closed in less than 14 days by March 2018, according to internal agency memos examined by the Tribune.
The same goals were given to DCFS' Chicago Child Advocacy Center teams, which handle time-consuming child sex abuse allegations and serious injury cases. One of those teams in March 2017 closed 2.4 percent of its cases in 14 days. That team also is expected to close 30 percent of its cases within two weeks by March 2018, a 12-fold increase, internal agency memos show.
Several DCFS employees told the Tribune that supervisors offered overtime pay, as opposed to comp time, to child protection investigators who met agency goals for closing cases in 14 days. Those employees and other government officials said they are concerned by what they view as a financial incentive that could skew workers' handling of investigations.
"I can see why people are up in arms if they feel they are being paid to close cases more quickly. Anything less than a thorough investigation is abhorrent," said Cook County Public Guardian , whose office represents abused and neglected children in juvenile court.
DCFS Cook County Regional Administrator Jacquetta Colyer, who oversees the Blue Star initiative, denied that the agency offered any reward to child protection investigators who quickly closed cases.
But DCFS Senior Deputy Director for Strategy and Performance Neil Skene said that in light of questions from the Tribune, DCFS will review how the Blue Star program was communicated to workers and whether the case-closing goals are appropriate.
Sheldon said he supported the goals of the Blue Star program but was concerned by the Tribune's reports of complaints from investigators.
"No employee should feel pressured to inappropriately close an investigation if they don't have full information," Sheldon said. "Closing an investigation should never happen until an investigation is complete."
'A toxic work environment'
As cases were closed more rapidly last year, DCFS saw a drop in the percentage of investigations in which abuse and neglect allegations were confirmed, according to a Tribune analysis of agency data since 2015.
In Cook County, DCFS "indicated" 26 percent of their abuse and neglect allegations reported to the agency in 2015 — meaning investigators found credible evidence of harm to children in these instances. Last year the "indicated" rate dropped to 20 percent, according to the agency data.
Sheldon called the drop in indicated cases a vacillation in the data and not a result of agency policy to close cases more rapidly.
"You're going to see fluctuations like that," he said.
Sheldon also disputed a January 2017 report from DCFS Inspector General Denise Kane that some investigators are handling perilously high caseloads, which Kane wrote is creating "a toxic work environment in which it is foreseeable that some investigators will take dangerous shortcuts that can lead to lethal errors."
Following two of the child deaths examined by the Tribune, DCFS management offered the investigators trauma counseling, but the investigators declined because of their heavy workloads, records and interviews show.
Sheldon said he has hired new child protection staff and last year temporarily reassigned scores of workers to close out unresolved cases, actions that should reduce investigators' caseloads.
According to state records, 75 children died within a year of DCFS closing an abuse or neglect investigation in 2014 and 2015. It is unclear how many of those children died from abuse.
The Tribune focused on three deaths by mistreatment that occurred under Sheldon's leadership, with each case highlighting the challenges his child protection workers face and the tragic errors they can make.
Top DCFS officials provided limited information about the three child fatality cases. The newspaper based its account on police reports, court records, child welfare files and interviews with family members, witnesses and government officials.
Dead of starvation at 6 months old
DCFS opened an investigation into the home of infant Jazmine Walker in March 2016 after the girl's father left Jazmine and her two brothers unattended as the 1- and 3-year-old boys wandered around their Edgewater apartment building.
Jerome Walker was charged with three misdemeanor counts of child endangerment, then 10 days later was arrested and subsequently imprisoned on separate drug and weapons charges, records show.
Walker had parted ways with the children's mother after an argument, and she was homeless, according to DCFS records.
DCFS placed Jazmine and her siblings with Jerome Walker's mother, Mattie Davis, under a "safety plan" that made no mention of their mother, according to DCFS records examined by the Tribune.
But within days the children were back with their mother, Chequita Bell. The family moved to Kokomo, Ind., to stay with a relative and also spent a brief time in south suburban Harvey, records and interviews show.
On May 17, 2016, a DCFS investigator closed his file after reporting that he had visited Jazmine and her siblings at their grandmother Davis' apartment in Chicago's Edgewater neighborhood.
"Jazmine was asleep in her bassinet on her back," the investigator's report said. "All three of the children appeared to be free of any salient signs of abuse or neglect."
Eight days later, Jazmine was dead of starvation in the Harvey home where her mother most recently kept her.
The 6-month-old's dehydrated corpse weighed less than 5 pounds. Jazmine's bones protruded visibly beneath her skin and her head was larger than the rest of her body, according to Harvey police records and a Cook County forensic pathology report.
A doctor would also describe the two brothers as "showing a sign of wasting." They were hospitalized to be evaluated for a refeeding program, according to Harvey police records.
Davis told the Tribune the DCFS investigator never examined Jazmine and her brothers in May in her Edgewater apartment.
"He did not come to my home. I'm 100 percent certain. The kids never came back to my place when they left for Kokomo," Davis said. "He never saw them."
Jazmine's paternal aunt Dorothy Williams also said that DCFS could not have seen the children at Davis' apartment in May. Bell and the youths stayed temporarily at her home in Kokomo before going to Harvey the night before Jazmine's death, she said.
"He messed up. That's what he did," Williams said of the DCFS investigator. "I think this could have been prevented."
DCFS Senior Deputy Director for Operations Michael Ruppe said he was unaware of the family's account that the investigator never saw the three children in May. After the Tribune raised questions about the case, DCFS immediately referred the matter to Inspector General Kane, who is conducting an investigation. Kane declined comment.
Skene cautioned that the investigator's case notes on that date "would be a lot to have manufactured." But Skene also said: "We have no toleration for fabrication of notes and are taking your information very seriously."
DCFS workers have been found to make false claims in reports in the past. Between 2012 and 2016, DCFS determined that 29 child protection workers falsified records or statements in abuse or neglect probes, a Tribune analysis found. Those workers falsely claimed to have met with school, medical and law enforcement officials, families and even children, DCFS alleged. The agency recommended firing 16 of those workers, but the disciplinary outcomes could not immediately be determined.
Still, Ruppe said more could have been done to protect Jazmine and the brothers. "Those children should have been observed carefully."
DCFS said it has taken steps to correct or prevent lapses in investigators' protocol. DCFS recently rolled out a mobile app that stamps the date, time and GPS location on photographs of children to confirm the investigator was actually present. And the agency has issued new directives requiring investigators to examine infants and children while they are awake and, if needed, "disrobe the child," Ruppe said.
The Tribune identified other investigative failures in Jazmine's DCFS file. Among the examples: Jazmine, who was born premature and suffered from spina bifida, had missed numerous medical appointments and was behind on immunizations and basic medical checks. The DCFS investigator reported that Jazmine's family was taking her to a doctor. But case records show no evidence that he followed up, in which case he would have learned the doctor visit never took place.
DCFS has tightened requirements that caseworkers follow up after asking a parent or guardian to take a child to the doctor, Ruppe said.
The DCFS investigator, who has not been disciplined following Jazmine's death, was paid $170,000 including overtime last year, and $56,000 in the first four months of 2017, state records show.
Currently held in Cook County Jail, Bell has pleaded not guilty to murder and other charges.
'They never came out'
The beating death of 2-year-old Elliana Claiborne in November 2015 marked the end of DCFS' sporadic investigation into her suffering.
Elliana came to the agency's attention a year before, when her mother, Jazmine Jones, allegedly got drunk and angry at a party in Calumet City and dropped the girl 6 feet down over a balcony railing into a snowbank.
A 16-year-old runaway, Jones had already been detained by police two dozen times for robbery, drug possession, aggravated battery and other crimes, records and interviews show.
"Elliana had abrasions to her face, neck and chest," according to a DCFS report on the Calumet City incident. "The baby has red marks and bruising and was not wearing any pants."
Jones was briefly detained but charges were dismissed in Cook County juvenile court. DCFS gave Elliana to Jones' mother, Tomika Tucker, even though Jones told agency investigators that Tucker's home was not safe because of drug activity, according to a DCFS report.
Tucker acknowledged to the Tribune that a relative in the home was a recovering heroin addict on methadone but said Jones was "trying to bad-mouth the home to keep the baby." After DCFS gave Tucker the baby, the agency dropped out of sight, according to Tucker's account and government records.
The investigator had referred the family to a private contractor for counseling and other services but the contractor never got the handoff and did not open a case, DCFS reports show.
"They never came out. They didn't check on the baby. They didn't check on my status," Tucker told the Tribune. "Nobody heard anything from DCFS from the last time I signed that guardianship until Elliana's death."
Tucker eventually gave Elliana back to Jones, who moved into a South Side home with a boyfriend and others, the Tribune found. There in November 2015, prosecutors allege, Jones punched her daughter several times in the stomach for refusing to eat noodles and went out to buy marijuana. Within hours the baby took her last breath. Elliana's autopsy showed scars or bruises on her head, stomach, face and back, burns on her foot and two rib fractures.
DCFS acknowledged that the case fell through the cracks because of poor communication between DCFS investigators and the contract agency.
"You should ensure the case is handed off," Ruppe said.
DCFS managers in at least one critical instance also oversaw the case via email as opposed to face-to-face meetings or phone calls with the investigator.
"Supervision should not be occurring by email," Ruppe said.
Jones, who has pleaded not guilty to murder and other charges, gave birth to another daughter in July while locked up at the Cook County Jail. This time DCFS took the newborn.
Left in danger
Manny Aguilar was born into a house of fear and lacerating pain.
His mother, Alyssa Garcia, would eventually have six children by three current or former gang members, and Garcia and the children told caseworkers that two of the men used drugs and beat Garcia in the home, government reports and interviews show.
The first time DCFS investigated the family was in 2012, when Manny was nearly 3 months old. DCFS took him and three older siblings from Garcia after she left Manny unclothed and unfed with a stranger and then locked the 2-, 4- and 5-year-old children alone in a car through the freezing night. Child welfare records alleged she went to smoke dope and sleep with a gang-involved boyfriend in his apartment.
Garcia pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of endangering the life of a child and was put on court supervision. DCFS took custody of the children and Garcia completed court-mandated parenting classes and some therapy.
The DCFS investigation indicated Garcia only for neglect — not abuse — even though Garcia's children said she beat them with a belt and sandals, punched them in the stomach and nose, and left them bruised. Garcia would smoke marijuana when she drove them places in the car, and also would "sniff crack," the children told DCFS.
Two years later, DCFS opened its second investigation into the family. Garcia was getting overnight visits in 2014 with the children while they lived in a foster home when one of the boys returned from an overnight with a bruise on his leg. A DCFS caseworker concluded that the boy fell off his bunk bed but nonetheless advised Garcia to stop using corporal punishment; the investigation was closed as "unfounded."
By November 2015, DCFS had returned the children to Garcia. Then, in January 2016, DCFS opened its third investigation after the two eldest boys texted a former foster parent saying Garcia "beat the crap" out of them, records show. They said they were frightened and wanted to be taken out of her home.
That probe was closed and "unfounded" in 31/2 weeks despite notable gaps in the file, the Tribune found.
For example, the DCFS investigator never obtained the children's cellphone to verify and analyze the text messages. After the boys made their outcry, Garcia confiscated the phone. The agency worker should have investigated why Garcia took that phone, DCFS officials now say. "It would be seen as a red flag," Ruppe told the Tribune. "It should have been further delved into."
The investigator also never noted that Garcia, then 26, was living with — and pregnant by — a 17-year-old with 22 juvenile arrests for crimes including aggravated battery to a police officer, drug charges and car theft, records show. The 17-year-old was often taking care of the kids by himself, Tribune interviews show.
In addition, Manny's doctor told the DCFS investigator that Manny looked sick when he last saw the boy in November and said Manny should be brought in for an appointment — but the investigator never followed up to learn that the appointment did not happen.
Garcia's eldest child told DCFS in 2012 that Garcia coached him on what to say to minimize her role in the child endangerment case. Yet a DCFS investigator in 2016 interviewed 4-year-old Manny in the home with Garcia present, according to Tribune interviews and DCFS records. Manny told the investigator his mother was treating him well. After Manny's death, his older brothers told a relative that Garcia promised to feed Manny and give him water if he lied to the investigator, Tribune interviews show.
DCFS closed that third investigation in February 2016. With child protection investigators out of the picture, the final six months of Manny's life were unspeakable.
In the storage room where a dog had been kept until it died of hypothermia, Manny was beaten with a belt or hanger by Garcia and her boyfriend, according to one judge's court order.
In one instance, when Garcia was watching TV on the couch while Manny pounded on the door for water, an older brother asked if he could let Manny out. Garcia said to ignore him, records and interviews show.
And when the storage room finally went quiet, Garcia sent in her 10-year-old son to find Manny dead.
Garcia and her boyfriend tried to obscure the homicide by erasing the boy's identity. They allegedly knocked out Manny's teeth with a baseball bat, DCFS reports show.
Garcia, her boyfriend and the boyfriend's relative Christian Camarena were arrested four days after Manny's death as they ran out of the abandoned building where they allegedly lit fire to Manny's shrouded corpse.
Garcia and Camarena currently await trial on charges of attempted arson and concealment of a death. They have both pleaded not guilty.
The boyfriend, who is now 18, was found delinquent in juvenile court of attempted arson and concealment of a death and is currently being held in a juvenile detention center. He was being manipulated by Garcia and "not all of these (abuse) allegations are applicable to him," his attorney Frank Avila told the Tribune.
Robbin Carroll, who runs a neighborhood center and a summer school attended by Manny's older siblings, said Manny's death left an open wound from which the community has yet to heal.
"DCFS left these kids all in danger," Carroll said. "In the time they needed them most, DCFS was not there."
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