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Flaws In Abuse Probe Detailed In DCFS Report

Cynthia and Rica
Police and Family Photos
Cynthia Baker was convicted of murder in the death of Rica Rountree by causing the internal injuries that led to the girl’s death.";

The hastily concluded investigation by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services into black eyes and bruises on a child who died weeks later of abuse is laid out in state records recently filed in a McLean County murder case.

A DCFS worker spent less than an hour at the Bloomington home of Richard Rountree and his girlfriend, Cynthia Baker, on Dec. 11, 2018, interviewing the pair about injuries Rountree’s 8-year-old daughter, Rica, had when she arrived at school.

Staff at Fox Creek Elementary School called DCFS on Dec. 10 to report Rica’s two black eyes and bruises on her cheek. DCFS Child Protection Specialist Patricia Shannon met with Rica at the school the following day.

A timeline of Shannon’s work on the abuse case was recently filed in court by the McLean County state’s attorney’s office in connection with Baker’s Nov. 19 sentencing on murder charges in Rica’s death.

RELATED STORY: Rica's Mother Targets DCFS Reform With New Group

Rica told the DCFS worker and school staff that her facial injuries were caused by a fall about three days earlier as she was packing toys into a box in a small closet.

At Baker’s sentencing, Fox Creek Elementary principal Leslie Davenport testified she had serious concerns about Rica’s well-being. The child came to school in ill-fitting clothes, and the black eyes were not the first signs of trauma seen on the girl, Davenport told Judge Casey Costigan.

"Our goal was to make sure Rica's life matters, and one way to do that is through changes in how DCFS reacts to child abuse allegations."

At 1:38 p.m. on Dec. 11, the DCFS worker called Baker about the alleged abuse and requested she take the child to see a doctor. A similar request was made minutes later in a call to the girl’s father.

Richard Rountree told DCFS at 2:08 p.m. that the girl’s doctor in Minonk was on vacation. Rountree “reported that he does not have the money to go to the emergency room or prompt care because it would cost $200,” said the report.

Two hours later, Rountree told DCFS Rica would be taken to a doctor in Pontiac. He “reported that everything was okay and there were no concerns,” and asked the state worker to meet with him and Baker later on Dec. 11.

At 5:10 p.m., Shannon interviewed Baker’s 16-year-old daughter about Rica’s injuries. The girl said she was not home when Rica allegedly fell,but recalled Rica telling her about falling on a toy box.

When the worker tried to interview Baker’s 6-year-old daughter at 5:13 p.m., Baker stepped in and denied Shannon access to the child.

Baker complained that “DCFS has made her children anxious due to the frequent visits and interviews,” according to the 36-page state report clearing Baker. Shannon notes that Rountree joined his girlfriend’s criticism of “the constant DCFS calls.”

The trip to a doctor in Pontiac meant missed hours at work, Baker told Shannon during the interview.

“Cynthia reported that children fall and have accidents all the time, she is not understanding how come it is abuse with Rica,” said the report.

Rountree concluded “that Rica may just be clumsy.”

Rica was a new patient for the Pontiac doctor who found it “plausible” that “blood can travel from one side (of the face) to the other,” Shannon’s supervisor, Daniel Norris, wrote in his Dec. 12 review of the worker’s report. The doctor also told DCFS an X-ray he ordered of Rica’s injuries was never completed.

On Dec. 20, 10 days after Rica suffered two black eyes, Norris agreed with Shannon’s recommendation of an “unfounded” finding against Baker, meaning no credible evidence of abuse was found to support the accusation.

Five days later, Rica was found unresponsive in her bed at the family’s new home in Normal. She died the following day at a Peoria hospital of internal injuries later determined to be caused by Baker’s repeated abuse.

The three-page report authored by DCFS following Rica’s death chronicles abuse allegations dating back to 2017 when Rica told authorities her father and Baker “were regularly whipping her with a belt.” Rountree was later given custody of Rica and the DCFS allegation was expunged.

In April 2018, Rica’s biological mother, Ann Simmons, asked DCFS to investigate a split lip, black eyes and marks on her child’s neck. Again, Rica offered explanations for the trauma and was returned to her father.

After Rica’s death, DCFS cited Baker and Rountree for child abuse. Rountree is serving eight years in prison for child endangerment.

McLean County prosecutors Mary Koll and Erika Reynolds asked the judge to consider the DCFS report of Rica’s prior abuse in his sentencing decision. In his remarks to Baker ahead of sending her to prison for life, Costigan called her acts “pure evil” and “demented.”

The missed opportunities by state welfare workers who failed to act when Rica showed other signs of abuse in the past year of her life while living with Baker and Rountree should be a lesson in future abuse cases, said the prosecutors.

“Our goal was to make sure Rica’s life matters, and one way to do that is through changes in how DCFS reacts to child abuse allegations,” said Koll.

DCFS spokesman William McCaffrey said the agency “has taken several steps to better serve vulnerable children and families, including providing additional training for more than 3,200 staff to help identify safety issues,” in the wake of Rica’s death.

The agency, said McCaffrey, “is committed to doing everything in our power to prevent similar tragedies from happening in the future.”

In the fiscal year that ended June 30, DCFS conducted about 81,000 investigations. Of the 77,000 reports of abuse involving children living within a family, 22,000 led to “founded” claims and about 55,000 involved unsupported accusations, according to state data.

More than 129,000 children were victims of alleged abuse and 39,178 were the victims of substantiated abuse, DCFS data shows.

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Edith began her career as a reporter with The DeWitt County Observer, a weekly newspaper in Clinton. From 2007 to June 2019, Edith covered crime and legal issues for The Pantagraph, a daily newspaper in Bloomington, Illinois. She previously worked as a correspondent for The Pantagraph covering courts and local government issues in central Illinois.
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