The beating death of an 8-year-old Normal girl is the focus of a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday against six state child welfare workers, the child’s father and the woman serving life in prison for the child’s death.
Rica Rountree died in January 2019 of internal injuries caused by repeated blows she suffered while living with her father, Richard Rountree, and his girlfriend Cynthia Baker, in Normal. A jury convicted Baker of murder in November 2019; she was sentenced last month to life in prison.
Rountree was sentenced to eight years for child endangerment.
In a virtual news conference, nationally recognized civil rights lawyer Ben Crump and two members of his legal team said Rica’s constitutional rights were violated by the state, the Department of Children and Family Services and six DCFS workers who failed to protect her from ongoing physical abuse. The child’s father and Baker also are named as defendants in the complaint.
DCFS workers Johanna O’Brien, Stefanie Moreau, Patrician Shannon, Mark Delashmit, Mark Orhwall and Daniel Norris are named in the court action.
“While Rica’s abusers may be behind bars, we have not yet achieved full justice for this child,” said Crump, who also serves as attorney for the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor families in separate police-involved killings.
"This baby was literally tortured to death,” Crump told reporters.
Lawyers declined to provide a specific amount of damages being sought in the case filed in U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois and the state Court of Claims.
Lawyer Steven Levin said records show DCFS’ reckless conduct started when the agency did not conduct a background investigation in 2016 into Richard Rountree’s home and the woman who served as Rica’s stepmother.
Such an investigation “would have given any sane individual pause before a placement was made” to the home, said Levin.
DCFS records show two cases against Baker where credible evidence of child abuse were substantiated against her before Rica’s placement.
In her comments, Rica’s mother, Ann Simmons, said DCFS first refused to listen to Rica when she told investigators she was being abused in the home. Later, DCFS rejected concerns from Rica’s teachers and Simmons over broken teeth, black eyes and bruises on the girl, said Simmons.
“These are people who are supposed to protect our children. I want every last one of these people held accountable,” Simmons told reporters.
Simmons had a message for DCFS: ”Kids are dying because you guys are not doing your job.”
Illinois’ child welfare agency has a history going back decades of failing to protect children in its care, said Levine.
Crump cited the marks and scars on Rica’s body when she was taken unresponsive to the hospital.
“Rica had to die before they believed she was in danger,” said Crump.
Baker did not testify at her trial, but when she took the witness stand at a post-trial hearing, she attempted to defend the abuse depicted on cell phone video collected by police. Troubling images of a frail, naked child being forced to stand with her arms outstretched as she held canned goods were played for jurors. Other video showed a frightened child attempting to escape Baker’s demand to a bedroom where beatings regularly took place.
In a recent statement, a DCFS spokesman said the agency had "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, the spokesman said, “is committed to doing everything in our power to prevent similar tragedies from happening in the future.”
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