Being poor contributed to Semaj Crosby's death

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Poverty didn't cause Semaj Crosby's death, but it likely contributed to it.

Whenever a child dies, it is troubling. But the death of 17-month-old Semaj Crosby, whose body was found underneath a couch in a filthy home in Township, is particularly disturbing.

It is a harsh reminder that even as America's economy strengthens, too many of our children still live in poverty. More than 15 million youngsters whose families are too poor to afford basic necessities, according to one estimate.

There is much we still don't know about Semaj's life or her death. She lived with her mother and her siblings in a rented house so squalid that officials in Joliet Township later declared it uninhabitable. There were piles of clothes everywhere, a stove that did not work, filthy carpets, garbage strewn about and roaches climbing the walls.

That was by no means acceptable, not by most standards, at least. But I wonder where else could they have gone? How many children have we seen with their mothers huddled under blankets in doorways along the Magnificent Mile?

Authorities called the residence a "squatters" house because people moved in and out. But it most likely was also a "family home," where relatives and friends stayed when they had nowhere else to go. That's often how poor people live.

Investigators have not yet determined how the toddler ended up under a couch that was flush to the floor with no legs. All they will say is that the death is "suspicious." Hours after Semaj was buried Friday, the house burned down early Saturday in a fire that officials say may have been deliberately set.

Questions also have been raised about whether child welfare workers who had contact with the family at least 16 times in the last year should have removed the children sooner. The decision to leave them with their mother, who was being investigated for neglect, was a judgment call that ended tragically, and someone should certainly be held accountable.

But I am struck by a statement George Sheldon, director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, made during a state budget hearing in Springfield last week. When asked about Semaj's death, Sheldon said DCFS does not take children into state custody "because of a dirty house." He went on to say that it is often an indication of poverty, not a lack of love or care.

So in this case, the social worker who had visited the home just hours before Semaj was reported missing had asked the mother to clean up and assemble the bunk beds the agency had given the children. The caseworker had promised to follow up in three days.

On previous visits, caseworkers had provided cleaning supplies and a vacuum cleaner. Sometimes when a caseworker arrived for an unannounced visit, the mother would be in the midst of cleaning or would promise to do it later.

Sheldon was right, to an extent. Poverty isn't a legitimate reason for removing children from their home. There are many parents who do without things in order to provide for their children as best they can.

In such cases, families would be best served by support services such as helping them obtain permanent housing, employment and counseling, if necessary. Dropping off a vacuum cleaner, cleaning supplies and bunk beds is not nearly enough.

There is also a more practical reason for leaving families intact. There is simply no place to put all the children who would be taken away because they are poor.

Nearly half of children in the United States live dangerously close to the poverty line, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health.

About 44 percent of children younger than 18 — 31.4 million — live in low-income households, according to the center. More than 21 percent — 15.4 million — live in poverty. Both numbers have risen significantly since the 2008 recession.

Very young children such as Semaj are most at risk. Some 47 percent of children age 5 or younger live in low-income families, compared with 45 percent of children 6 to 11 years old.

By the time the questions surrounding Semaj's death are resolved, there likely will be plenty of blame to go around. While we are assigning fault, let's not overlook how poverty can create dangerous living situations that sometimes place vulnerable children at risk. Without addressing the poverty, everything else is a Band-Aid.

In this case, being poor did not cause Semaj's death. But it certainly contributed to it.

Twitter @dahleeng

Being poor contributed to Semaj Crosby's death

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Article Being poor contributed to Semaj Crosby's death compiled by www.chicagotribune.com