When Ann Simmons last saw her daughter Rica Rountree alive on April 20, 2018, with obvious signs of abuse, she knew she had to change her life for the better if she was going to save her daughter’s life.
But Simmons’ efforts fell short of what the criminal system demanded of her, and she was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison on Jan. 10, 2019, for failing to complete the terms of her probation. Fifteen days later, Rica died of internal injuries caused by punches and kicks she received from Cynthia Baker, the girlfriend of Rica’s father, Richard Rountree.
Since her release from prison a year ago, Simmons has started a nonprofit organization, Justice4Rica, to help reform the child welfare system that failed to recognize the ongoing physical and emotional abuse Rica suffered for more than a year after she was placed with her father and Baker.
“The fact that I was sentenced to prison was a shocker to my soul,” said Simmons. “I knew Rica was going to die when I was sentenced Jan. 10. I knew Rica was going to die if nobody did anything to get her out of that situation.”
RELATED STORY: Flaws In Abuse Probe Detailed In DCFS Report
DCFS records show Baker was investigated for suspected child abuse eight times between 2002 and 2018, including three allegations in 2017 and 2018 involving Rica. Investigations in a 2002 probe related to a stepchild and a 2012 allegation involving Baker’s daughter were substantiated by the state.
It was not until 2018 when the state learned of the circumstances of Rica’s death that DCFS filed substantiated abuse findings against Baker and Rountree.
When Ann Simmons tallies the failures that contributed to her daughter’s death, she does not overlook her own faults. A drug raid of her home in 2016 resulted in Rica and another sibling being placed with Rountree and Baker. A subsequent aggravated DUI created more legal problems for Simmons and kept Rica in a home with a stepmother who told Rountree repeatedly that she hated the girl.
A lack of support for parents who are struggling to get back on their feet and regain custody of their children is one issue Simmons hopes to address through Justice4Rica.
Simmons has harsh words for the state’s welfare system and its handling of multiple accusations of abuse of Rica.
“I’m just gonna say it. They’re responsible for murder. You had a job to do and your job could have prevented the death of my child. I just want them to be held accountable,” Simmons said of DCFS staff who deemed three prior abuse allegations “unfounded.”
In the April 2018 incident, Simmons said two DCFS workers spent about five minutes talking to Rica outside the Law and Justice Center about her injuries before issuing a ruling favorable to Baker. When Simmons challenged a DCFS supervisor about the decision, he told her, “I stand by my worker,’” according to Simmons.
A lack of diversity among DCFS workers and a rush to judgement in some cases of suspected abuse also needs to be addressed, said Simmons.
“We don’t have people who look like us,” said Simmons, who is Black. “We don’t have people that have been through some of the things that we have been through.”
Simmons described the majority of caseworkers as “younger, white women, fresh out of college, middle class, who don’t have a clue what it’s like to struggle.”
The criteria DCFS staff use in determining a parent’s ability to care for a child may be applied subjectively, said Simmons, and fail to recognize those personal struggles. Simmons cites her life as an example.
With a history of drugs, prison and “everything imaginable under the sun,” Simmons still considers herself a success story. Others may disagree, she acknowledged.
“Somebody else might come in and not think that and that’s not OK because I am doing a hell of a lot better today than I was one year ago. I’m not where I want to be but I’m on my way,” she said.
Simmons is collaborating with a Chicago law firm that works on race and poverty issues on possible reforms to DCFS rules and oversight of the agency.
In addition to mentoring programs and support for parents, Simmons also proposes “a second set of eyes for DCFS” to review decisions impacting children “because a lot of times there’s a cultural disconnect” that leads to removal of a child.
In Rica’s case, a 36-page DCFS report related to a December 2018 abuse allegation filed after Rica came to school with two black eyes provides no indication that investigators considered prior physical abuse accusations against Baker. An accused child abuser’s entire history should be part of any new investigation, said Simmons, to help authorities determine if a disturbing pattern exists.
There's no subscription fee to listen or read our stories. Everyone can access this essential public service thanks to community support. Donate now, and help fund your public media.