Lawsuit: 'Sham' Probes, Racism Behind DCFS Failures In Rica Rountree Death
“Sham investigations” by state child welfare workers emboldened Rica Rountree’s abusers to continue the abuse that led to her death in January 2019, according to a federal lawsuit filed by the child’s estate.
The 8-year-old Normal girl died of internal injuries linked to blows to her abdomen, according to an autopsy report that also noted more than 60 scars and marks on her body. The girl’s father, Richard Rountree, was convicted of child endangerment, and his girlfriend, Cynthia Baker, is serving a life sentence for murder. Both are named in the lawsuit that includes eight state workers, the Department of Children and Family Services and the State of Illinois.
At the time DCFS placed Rica with her father and Baker in September 2016, the agency’s records contained numerous reports of alleged abuse of other children by the pair. Credible abuse was determined in two of those cases involving Baker in 2002 and 2012, according to DCFS reports.
On Monday DFS spokesman William McCaffrey said the agency does not comment on pending litigation. But he said, “We are committed to doing everything in our power to prevent similar tragedies from happening in the future,” including additional training of 3,200 staff.
The background investigation of Rountree and Baker by child protection specialist Mary Ann Poynter was “a sham investigation,” and false and omitted information “created an inaccurate report” that put Rica at risk of serious harm by the couple, said the lawsuit.
Ashley Deckert is accused of “deliberate and reckless indifference” as the supervisor who approved Rica’s placement.
Rica’s battle to survive ongoing abuse was complicated by the fact she was a Black child placed in the custody of a state agency with a history of treating Black children differently from their white counterparts, claims the lawsuit,filed by a legal team that includes nationally recognized civil rights lawyer Ben Crump.
The DCFS staff failures “emboldened and encouraged Rica’s abusers to punish, torture and abuse her to the point of death,” states the lawsuit. The estate is asking for damages “in a sum to be ascertained.”
Abuse claims roll in
Reports based on specific claims of abuse started in July 2017 when Rica’s mother, Ann Simmons, told DCFS her daughter was regularly whipped with a belt by Baker. DCFS supervisor Mark Delashmit approved caseworker Johanna O’Brien’s recommendation that the claim be deemed “unfounded,” despite information from Delashmit’s own investigation that “caused him to suspect and/or know Rica was at risk” while living in Rountree's household, the lawsuit alleges.
Abrasions to Rica’s lip, a gash over her eye and scars on her neck prompted an April 20, 2018, call to the DCFS hotline from Simmons. Rica was afraid to go home, Simmons told authorities. Child protection specialist Stefanie Moreau also documented a broken tooth when she visited the child at school.
Six days later, Moreau categorized the alleged abuse as “unfounded,” a conclusion her supervisor, Mark Ohrwall, later approved, according to the 22-page lawsuit alleging the child’s constitutional rights were violated.
Signs of more serious abuse were reported by a school nurse in December 2019 when Rica came to school with two black eyes. The nurse told DCFS caseworker Patricia Shannon “that Rica had other marks on her face not consistent with an accidental trip, but rather evidence of child abuse,” said the lawsuit.
An investigation spanning 10 days ended with DCFS supervisor Daniel Norris’ acceptance of Rica’s explanation that her injuries were the result of a fall, according to DCFS reports filed in Baker’s case.
The final allegations of abuse came in January 2019 when Rica was taken to the hospital with a perforated ileum caused by blunt force trauma to her abdomen. A DCFS investigation found credible evidence of abuse against Rountree and Baker.
A pattern of failures
For almost 30 years, Illinois has struggled to overcome ongoing serious accusations that DCFS fails to protect children in its care. The DCFS Office of Inspector General created in 1993 to specifically address shortcomings in agency investigations annually tallies the deaths and causes of about 100 children who die in DCFS care.
The Rountree lawsuit cites a 2019 DCFS observation that “African-American and Latinex children are experiencing poorer outcomes than their White counterparts” in the Illinois child welfare system, and that these disparities are the result of “implicit racial bias and structural racism.”
Baker, who is white, was accused of singling Rica out for physical and emotional abuse, while Richard Rountree, who is Black, did not protect his daughter. Cell phone video collected by police showed both adults torturing the child, often in front of other children in the home.
In Rica’s case, DCFS staff ignored clear evidence of abuse at least in part, because Rica was Black, lawyers for the estate contend in the lawsuit.
Overworked staff are urged to close cases quickly, the lawsuit alleges, and maintain “a code of silence ... regarding sham investigations, falsified reports, and/or disparate treatment of African American children within DCFS.”
Joining the Ben Crump firm on the legal team are the Chicago firms of Levin and Perconti and Spiros Law, both of Chicago.
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