McLean County prosecutors speak out on handling of the Rica Rountree case
During the final months of her life, Rica Rountree came to accept the physical abuse that killed her.
“I’m used to it,” she told another child living in the home her father Richard Rountree shared with his girlfriend Cindy Baker and her children.
The punches, black eyes, broken teeth and humiliation the 8-year-old suffered before her death in December 2019 were avoidable, if only the state system set up to protect children had done a better job of investigating what a judge described as the “demented” and “pure evil” acts of Baker, according to the two prosecutors who handled the case against the Bloomington woman.
Speaking publicly for the first time about what went wrong in Rica’s case, Erika Reynolds and Mary Koll spoke with WGLT about the failures that led to the ongoing abuse that caused Rica’s fatal internal injuries.
The signs of abuse were clear.
In April 2018, Rica’s biological mother Ann Simmons called the DCFS hotline and reported that her daughter was afraid to return to her father’s home following a visit. The child had an injury above her eye and a broken tooth.
A DCFS investigator accepted the child’s explanation that she hit her eye on the bathroom counter and broke a tooth on a dresser drawer. Richard Rountree told the state worker his daughter was “accident prone.” The allegation of abuse was deemed unfounded a month later and the case was closed, according to DCFS records released after the child’s death.
Two black eyes on the child prompted a school nurse to call DCFS in December 2018. Again, Rica offered an explanation — this time a fall on a toy box — as the cause of the injury. Rica’s father initially resisted a directive to take the child to a doctor but later complied and took the girl to a doctor in Pontiac who had not previously seen her as a patient.
The prosecutors were critical of how a DCFS investigator handled the abuse allegations.
It is not surprising that Rica came up with excuses for her trauma, particularly when she was questioned in front of Rountree and Baker, said Reynolds.
“It a huge problem. When you have a child like Rica who wasn’t willing to disclose (abuse) and you try to see it from her perspective, she’s brought into a room with a teacher who’s called DCFS and they are asking her what’s going on,” said the prosecutor. When the conversation continues in front of Baker, “she’s obviously not going to be comfortable disclosing.”
Taking children to an area away from possible perpetrators for questioning gives victims a safer place to talk about allege abuse, said Reynolds.
The decision by DCFS to allow Richard Rountree or Baker to take the girl to a doctor also was a mistake that allowed the abuse to continue, said Koll. A complete physical examination by a doctor trained in identifying signs of physical abuse in children was a better option, she said.
“What I would like to see is if a child has visible injuries that are suspicious for child abuse, they receive a full body examination by a physician who specializes in child abuse,” said Koll. Dr. Channing Petrak at the Pediatric Resource Center in Peoria is among those specialists, she said.
“In Rica’s case, when she had those injuries, visible injuries to her face, she was allowed to be examined by a physician chosen by her perpetrator, who had no familiarity with Rica, and who did not specialize in child abuse. Whereas we believe that if Rica had received a full body examination by someone like Dr. Petrak, she would probably be alive today. That would have made a huge difference, the ultimate difference for her,” said Koll.
Limited access by investigators to prior closed DCFS complaints is an issue that may prevent staff from putting together a clear picture of what’s going on inside a home, said Reynolds.
“What we’ve been told by different investigators is that they can’t look up something that was unfounded after a certain period of time, that it gets sealed off,” said Reynolds.
Prosecutors have been “baffled that the investigator on a particular investigation or report doesn’t necessarily have access to everything in the past.”
In Rica’s case, Rountree and Baker had been accused of child abuse in the past. Allegations against Baker dated back to 2002 and involved her own children and well as Rica. After Baker was sentenced to life in prison for Rica’s murder and Rountree was given eight years for child endangerment, DCFS issued indicated findings against both for their mistreatment of the girl, meaning the agency found credible evidence of abuse.
Koll and Reynolds acknowledged the DCFS workers whose intervention spares children ongoing abuse. High staff vacancies, heavy caseloads, and the potential violence caseworkers face as they do their jobs were issues cited by the prosecutors. Koll noted the efforts of a DCFS investigator in a pending child abuse case “where a DCFS investigator went above and beyond, trusted her instincts, and saved a child’s life.”
In the wake of Rica’s death, DCFS announced several steps taken to address calls for change at the child welfare agency, including additional training for more than 3,000 staff to better identify safety issues.
In the year following Rica’s death, 122 Illinois children died, despite DCFS involvement in their lives in the 12 months before their deaths.