The doctor who performed Rica Rountree’s autopsy started by counting the scars on her body.
Her 8-year-old body had 67 marks from head to toe, signs of extensive abuse, said Dr. Matthew Fox. But it was the internal injuries — trauma to her abdomen — that killed her.
Now, her father’s girlfriend, Cynthia Baker, is charged with Rica’s murder. She’s accused of kicking Rica in the stomach, causing the internal injuries that slowly killed her.
While it’s Baker facing trial, Rica’s mother, Ann Simmons, says there were many others who were aware of the abuse and failed to stop it.
“Everybody failed her. I failed her,” said Simmons, who has struggled with alcoholism. She is currently finishing a 2.5-year prison sentence in a forgery case and for failing to complete the terms of her probation on an aggravated DUI. Rica died Jan. 26—just 16 days after Simmons was sentenced.
Rica was one of 103 children who died in the past year while involved in some way with the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), prompting an overhaul of the state agency that cares for children. In Rica’s case, the key question is why authorities in 2016 sent Rica to live with her father and Baker — a woman who twice before was placed on a list of known child abusers.
Simmons says DCFS is largely to blame.
“Your only position in this world is to protect our children when the parents can’t. That’s your position, to pick up where we fall short,” Simmons said.
Rica’s death comes as DCFS faces scrutiny for how rarely it removes children from their home. Indeed, Illinois has the lowest foster care entry rate in the U.S. But a study commissioned earlier this year after a string of child deaths—including Rica’s—found DCFS staff are not empowered to recommend removal even when they feel it’s warranted.
Before she was a poster child for DCFS reform efforts, Rica was an independent kid with a big imagination. She loved dolls and would go to yard sales to buy strollers, car seats, baby bottles, and clothes for her girls.
Rica was exactly the kind of kid who needed protection. Her family had a history of domestic violence and substance abuse. Rica’s parents, Richard Rountree and Ann Simmons, split up in 2015 and later divorced. That family fractured further in 2016, when Rica was still living with her mother. Police raided her mother’s home and Simmons was arrested on drug charges. Rica, then 6, was sent to live with her father, Richard, and his girlfriend, Cynthia Baker.
A Different Rica
By mid-2017, Rica was raising concerns about Baker, court and Normal Police records show. She was visibly fearful around Baker, Simmons said. Rica claimed Baker was regularly whipping her with a belt, and her father would force her to stand for long periods of time while holding cans as a punishment, Simmons told a Normal police officer in 2017, according to his report. Rica stayed with her mother during a subsequent investigation, though DCFS found no credible evidence of abuse.
This is when Rica’s behavior started to change, Simmons said.
“She was different. She was more reserved. She was really cautious about a lot of stuff, whereas before she was carefree,” Simmons said.
In April 2018 during a visit at Rica’s school, Simmons said she was shocked to see her daughter with a split lip, black eye, a broken tooth, new and old scars on her neck, and her hair cut really short. When DCFS investigated, Rica explained away her injuries as clumsy accidents at home, according to a DCFS timeline of her case. Rica denied anyone was hurting her in the home or that she was fearful of anyone, DCFS said. The abuse claims were determined to be “unfounded.”
Four months later, in October 2018, Simmons said her ex-husband, Richard Rountree, had made it clear he was done with Rica.
“He was telling me I need to find a knight in shining armor to save Rica, because he didn’t want nothing to do with her. He don't want to pay child support. He didn’t want visits. He didn't want to be her father. He just wanted her to be adopted out, so they didn't have any obligation to her,” Simmons said.
Around this time, the animosity at home between Baker and Rica had worsened. Staff at Rica’s school provided her with a coat — a gesture that authorities said sparked an “irate” response from Baker, authorities said. She accused the school staff of favoring Rica over Baker’s own daughter.
After the coat incident, Rica arrived at school in December 2018 with two black eyes, prompting school staff to notify DCFS, authorities said. Baker became angry with school officials because they had contacted DCFS; she claimed Rica was “just clumsy and had given herself the black eyes,” according to prosecutors. Rica explained the injury was caused by falling on some toys.
DCFS directed Baker to take Rica for X-rays and she refused to do it, prosecutors said. Rica stayed in the home and, for the third time in 16 months, a DCFS investigation of Richard and Baker determined any claims of abuse to be “unfounded.”
After the school’s intervention over Rica’s black eyes, Baker pulled her daughter and Rica from the school and enrolled them at Prairieland Elementary School.
In January 2019, as Simmons continued her custody fight for Rica, a judge determined she was not making enough progress on the terms of her probation stemming from the 2015 aggravated DUI. Simmons was sentenced to 2.5 years in prison for not completing her probation and for a separate forgery case. Her efforts to get back on track were “too little too late,” he said.
By then, it was also too late for Rica.
On Jan. 26, 2019, Rica was taken by ambulance to Advocate BroMenn hospital, after she became unresponsive after several days of belly pain. Rica had a large bruise on her abdomen and was transferred to a Peoria hospital. She went into surgery for internal injuries but died on the operating table. A forensic pathologist determined Rica died from peritonitis caused by blunt-force injury to her abdomen.
That night, a child protection investigator talked to Richard and Baker about Rica’s injuries, according to court records. They both denied punching or kicking Rica in the stomach. Just 18 days into her prison term, Simmons said she was called into the chaplain’s office, where her 18-year-old son told her by phone that Rica was dead.
During the three-month investigation that followed — in which Richard and Baker were represented by an attorney — investigators discovered cell phone videos allegedly documenting Baker’s ongoing abuse of Rica. Authorities said one showed Baker dragging Rica by her neck into a bedroom to be punished. Another allegedly showed the child stripped naked, wet and shivering, forced to hold cans. When the girl’s arms slackened, Baker reportedly slapped the child on both sides of the face and yelled, “Do I need to put a collar on you?” before Baker wrapped her hands around the child’s neck.
In April 2019, Baker was charged with murder, aggravated domestic battery, and domestic battery of a child in connection with the girl’s death. Four other children living in their home—including two teenagers who prosecutors said “witnessed and experienced” significant abuse in the home themselves—were removed by the state after charges were filed.
Baker and Richard were both “indicated” for multiple allegations of abuse and neglect related to Rica’s death, meaning DCFS believed they were responsible for the injuries. It wasn’t the first time Baker was indicated for abuse. She was found to have caused injuries to a stepchild (in 2002) and her own daughter (in 2012), according to court records obtained by WGLT.
Baker’s murder trial is set to begin Tuesday.
“Johnson Law Group successfully convinced the court to exclude evidence of alleged abuse that were more than a decade old,” one of her attorneys, Brendan Bukalski, said in a statement. “We are happy with the result, because the actual issues are limited to the immediate charges, and not what might have happened in the distant past. Our client is innocent, and we look forward to a jury hearing this case this month.”
McLean County State’s Attorney Don Knapp declined to comment on the case.
It’s unclear if Rica’s father could also face criminal charges in her death.
“That’s part of that whole investigation. We certainly work with DCFS, but we’re also working with the state’s attorney’s office on that,” said Normal Police Chief Rick Bleichner. “We're cautious as we move through this to make sure that if we do have a case that we can certainly bring that to a successful prosecution.”
As Rica’s death plays out in the criminal justice system, it’s also being held up by lawmakers as an example of why DCFS needs a major overhaul.
Lawmakers have demanded reforms, pointing to the 100 or so children who have died every year while under some form of DCFS supervision. That number has remained flat since 2013.
“This consistent number of child deaths shows that the state of Illinois is failing to improve and ensure the protection of children, even when it knows they are at risk,” DCFS acting inspector general Maryl Paniak said in a memo to lawmakers in May that cited Rica’s case.
Paniak noted DCFS’ failure to complete thorough and timely investigations, a lack of clinical supervision of staff who are making life-altering decisions for families, and poor follow-through of past inspector general recommendations for how to fix known problems.
“Management must support its investigators by giving them needed resources,” Paniak wrote. “Investigative shortcuts occur when investigators are overburdened. Each shortcut has the potential of producing a lethal error.”
Rica’s mother, Ann Simmons, questions why DCFS seemingly believed Rica’s own explanations for her injuries. Simmons said DCFS could have done more to make Rica feel safe and be honest.
“I said, ‘If y'all go and check on her, pull her out of that place, take her somewhere safe and talk to her, she'll be honest with y'all,’” Simmons said. “They're putting the fear of God in my child. She gonna say whatever they tell her to say, because y'all keep leaving her there.”
After the July 2017 allegations involving the belt, Simmons said two DCFS investigators had only a brief 5-minute conversation with Rica at a bus stop outside the McLean County courthouse.
“And that was it. It was over with. It was done,” Simmons said.
This issue came up during a May 2019 hearing in Springfield, when the House Adoption and Child Welfare Committee asked DCFS leadership about a string of recent child deaths, including Rica’s.
“When you have children who are being asked by teachers or DCFS and they are making up excuses that the parents had coached them to give, I would assume DCFS is not using that information at all to make a determination,” said state Rep. Anna Moeller, D-Elgin. “Understanding that children are going to be loyal to their parents, even if they’re being abused.
“That’s not being used to determine whether there’s abuse, correct? I would hope. You tell me,” she said.
“There’s a lot that goes into a finding,” a DCFS staffer replied. “Yes, we do listen to what a child says, but that’s only a portion of what we listen to when making our decisions. Is there human error made? Yes. Have we had missed opportunities? Yes. But the information from a child is not the sole decision-maker.”
With Rica’s recurring injuries, why wasn’t she removed from the home and placed in foster care?
One explanation is that Illinois has largely moved away from family separations as a practice. Decades ago, as many as 50,000 children were in foster care. Now it’s down to around 17,000.
“That’s a good thing, but if we’re going that route, we have to make sure there are the services (such as addiction treatment) readily available for families,” said Doris Houston, director of ISU’s Center for Child Welfare and Adoption Studies and a former DCFS child welfare administrator.
A study this year found that some DCFS workers face pressure to keep families together, even after evidence of abuse or neglect. There’s also a shortage of foster parents, which can leave kids in less-than-ideal circumstances.
DCFS is still investigating Rica’s death.
“DCFS is deeply saddened by the loss of Rica Rountree,” the agency said in a statement earlier this year. “During her time with her father, DCFS conducted multiple investigations into allegations of abuse and found these allegations to be unfounded. There is currently a pending investigation into this death and we are committed to understanding exactly what happened in this case and being fully transparent with the public. DCFS is working closely with the new administration to review our practices, policies, and procedures in order to fully live up to our mission to protect vulnerable children in Illinois.”
This year’s state budget includes a $130 million budget increase for DCFS, and the agency plans to hire hundreds of new employees.
“DCFS cannot continue to do the same things it has for the past several years and expect better outcomes,” said Paniak, the inspector general.
Ann Simmons is scheduled to be released from Decatur Correctional Center in December. First on her to-do list is finding Rica’s remains. She was cremated but, according to Simmons, no memorial service was held.
Simmons said she wants to share her story and become an advocate for fixing a system she feels let her daughter down. Simmons, who also has four sons, wants to try and regain custody of her 12-year-old.
“My daughter should have not have ever died. It should have never been this way,” Simmons said. “Something has to happen from the beginning, so that the ends don't be like this.”
WGLT's Eric Stock contributed to this report.
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