Disturbing questions linger in Joliet-area toddler's death

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Semaj Crosby was buried in a pink dress and silver tiara, far from the squalid conditions in which

Semaj Crosby was buried in a pink dress and silver tiara, far from the squalid conditions in which she had lived.

Hundreds of mourners filled a Joliet church Friday to say goodbye to the 17-month-old girl whose disappearance set off a frantic search, which ended 30 hours later when her body was found under a couch in a filthy home later deemed uninhabitable.

But more than a week after the grisly discovery, which sparked another crisis for Illinois' scandal-ridden child welfare agency, the toddler's death remains shrouded in mystery. Disturbing questions about whether warning signs were missed and what more might have been done by the Department of Children and Family Services, as well as other public agencies whose employees were in and out of the home in Semaj's final months, remain unanswered.

DCFS Director George Sheldon — the agency's ninth chief since 2011 — is contemplating a move to a large Florida nonprofit just two years after his arrival. Roiled by Semaj's death, Sheldon met Friday with several Will County leaders and brainstormed ways to strengthen community support for struggling families.

"There can be some positive coming out of this," he told the Tribune afterward. Asked if the toddler's death would be a factor if he leaves, Sheldon said, "If anything, it's an encouragement to stay."

Authorities with the Will County sheriff's office continue to characterize the tragedy as a "suspicious death." An autopsy revealed no signs of trauma to Semaj's body, and results from toxicology tests may take another three to four weeks. Detectives reviewed "a portion of the lab tests" Thursday, but they declined to make public whether that shed any light on how the girl died.

Her mother, Sheri Gordon, lived in the small rental in the 300 block of Louis Road in Joliet Township for at least a year, according to authorities. They said it wasn't clear who was in the home when Semaj died. In fact, as one sheriff's official put it, as many as 15 squatters would "come and go as they please."

Among those living there was a convicted felon who served two stints in prison for aggravated battery and was on probation at the time for a 2016 attack on an ex-girlfriend, the Tribune has learned through interviews and public records. Will County probation officials had been to the home some 40 times in the past year or more to check on the man, probation authorities confirmed.

Police took him into custody hours before Semaj's body was found based on a March 27 petition Will County prosecutors filed in court alleging various probation violations, including that the probation officers smelled marijuana in the home during one visit and that he was under DCFS investigation for a complaint unrelated to Semaj. There is no indication from public records that he is a suspect in Semaj's death or was in the home the day she died.

Authorities with the sheriff's office responded to Semaj's house 14 times over the past year as well, they said, though most of the calls were not serious enough to warrant a written report, including two times when they said deputies delivered Easter baskets to the children.

DCFS has been working with Gordon since September after receiving repeated hotline calls alleging neglect.The agency deemed four of the investigations unfounded, meaning they did not find credible evidence of neglect, but two probes that began in March remained open. In fact, a DCFS investigator was at the home just three hours before Gordon, 32, reported Semaj missing.

About 3:20 p.m. April 25, the investigator saw Semaj and two of her three older brothers and found "no obvious safety concerns or hazards at the time," an agency spokeswoman said. The third sibling was not home at the time.

Shortly after 6 p.m., Gordon called police to report her daughter missing. At the time, authorities said the child was last seen barefoot in dark blue jeans and a gray shirt with a cat on the front, her dark hair up in several ponytails held with white-beaded ties. A desperate search in the neighborhood ensued, as Gordon and other relatives made pleas in televised interviews for Semaj's safe return.

Some 30 hours later, sheriff's police and FBI agents gained consent to search the home. Within an hour, investigators said they discovered the toddler's body under a dingy couch. The couch did not have legs and was flush to the floor.

Rick Ackerson, deputy chief of the sheriff's office, said as many as five to 15 people lived at the home at any given time — some friends or relatives would stay for a while and then move out — and referred to them as "squatters." The Will County Land Use Department deemed the house uninhabitable, and photos released through open records requests showed squalor.

The house did not have a working stove, and its doors were blocked by containers of clothes, garbage and other items, making it difficult to open the doors and thus creating a safety hazard, county officials said. Mounds of clothing covered soiled carpets, and the home was infested with roaches and bedbugs.

The conditions were so unkempt, a disgusted Will County judge overseeing the placement of Gordon's three other children earlier this week demanded all DCFS cases in the county be brought to her courtroom. Judge Paula Gomora chastised DCFS for failing to act on the red flags.

"Quite honestly, from what I saw, I don't know how any caseworker could've walked into that house and let those children stay," she said. "If there were reasonable efforts (by caseworkers), those children would've been removed a long time ago."

A DCFS attorney present in Gomora's courtroom said the agency's investigator noticed the filthy conditions in the home that day and instructed the mother to clean it up. Besides the DCFS investigator, a caseworker with Children's Home + Aid was last in the home April 24, officials said. DCFS hired the private nonprofit child welfare agency to work with Gordon as part of its voluntary intact family services program.

The caseworker had been making weekly visits to the home to try to help the single mother better care for her children. Gordon, who declined to comment, has been described by relatives and authorities as an overwhelmed but loving mother.

The Children's Home + Aid worker had been meeting with her for several months and provided her with cleaning supplies, a vacuum cleaner and bunk beds. She promised to return in three days to check in, but by then, it was too late.

"This is a colossal tragedy that never had to happen," Gomora said.

In their most recent statement to the media, sheriff's officials Friday urged the public to be patient with its "tireless work on this case."

"No one is in custody," the news release said. "No one has been ruled a suspect, nor has any person been ruled out as a suspect."

The child's father, James Crosby, also has declined comment. He was in custody at the time of his daughter's death on an unrelated theft charge, but a judge granted the 25-year-old Romeoville man's release to attend his daughter's funeral.

He and Gordon, who have one other child together, embraced at their daughter's funeral Friday while standing before her tiny white casket. The word "Princess" was written in purple letters on the inside of the open lid.

Mourners, some wearing white "Team Semaj" sweatshirts, filed past the girl's casket, which was draped in pink netting and surrounded by balloons and flowers at the Prayer Tower Ministries Church of God in Christ in Joliet.

"Let us leave this room determined that we're not going to let any more families fall through the cracks," pastor Warren Dorris told the crowd.

"We're going to challenge ourselves; we're going to use this incident to challenge ourselves and the community to do better."

Semaj was the little child "leading" the community to do better, Dorris said. Still, much of his eulogy was directed at DCFS.

"They have failed," he said, sparking applause. "They should be held accountable for what has happened here."

He referred to DCFS as "Disconnected Family Safety."

On Friday, DCFS' Sheldon had three meetings with various leaders in the Joliet area — two near the home where Semaj lived. Sheldon suggested coming to Joliet after a hearing before a state Senate panel Wednesday, said state Sen. Pat McGuire, D-Joliet.

"The director has opened the lines of communication," McGuire said after the meetings. "He's made a commitment to continue sharing information and doing what we need to do to heal the wound that this death has inflicted on the community."

In his meetings, Sheldon promised to keep officials informed of the results of a quality assurance review he has ordered of the agency's handling of the case.

"The director wants to get to the bottom of this," McGuire said. "(He said) if DCFS erred, he will take responsibility for that and he will work to do his best to see that nothing like this happens again."

Sheldon also said he was optimistic because of community leaders offering help. He said some of the meetings focused on how different organizations, including faith-based groups, could help struggling families with food or money for garbage disposal.

"We all bring something to the table," he said.

But Sheldon's future in Illinois remains unclear. Gov. Bruce Rauner appointed him in February 2015, following high-profile child deaths and other agency scandals. Sheldon has blamed the frequent change of leadership for Illinois' failures to protect some children and teen wards, as well as families. Sheldon has touted various reforms since his arrival, but his resolve to remain in Illinois in recent days has been tested.

Besides Semaj's death, the Tribune recently examined several contracts and hires by Sheldon and found ties stretching back to his campaigns for Florida office.

Earlier in the week, in regards to Semaj, he opined about the important responsibility his agency faces.

"Is there anything we missed? If we did, how did we miss it and what are the protocols that should be put in place?" Sheldon said. "We need to learn from this."

Alicia Fabbre is a freelance reporter. Christy Gutowski is a Tribune reporter.

Twitter @christygutowsk1

Disturbing questions linger in Joliet-area toddler's death

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