Five-year-old Christopher Valdez was killed by his mother’s boyfriend on Nov. 25, about two months after the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services closed his child abuse case. His aunt, Katrina Valdez, visits his grave. Photo by Joe Gallo.

Christopher Valdez hid underneath a table in terror. The boy must have known that he was no match for his mother’s boyfriend, Cesar Ruiz, who was hunting after him. In a fit of rage, Ruiz thrashed the room. Glass shattered. A telephone flew across the room. The boy’s mother, Crystal, sat in the corner crying. His 5-year-old sister, Christine, watched, helpless.

Later on that November day, Katrina Valdez arrived at the house to celebrate her nephew’s fifth birthday—only to find him wrapped in a comforter, motionless on his mother’s bed. Christine was draping herself over the boy, clinging to her brother’s lifeless body. His injuries were masked by makeup—a futile attempt by his mother to conceal the evidence of Ruiz’s repeated blows.

The warning signs had been there.

A few months earlier, child-welfare workers had taken Christopher into the custody of his grandparents after he showed up at an emergency room with a black eye, dozens of bruises and a concussion. But he was back with his mother and three siblings within a matter of weeks. At Thanksgiving dinner, only hours before Christopher’s death, family friends witnessed the boy with a black eye vomiting all night, unable to eat.

“Christopher should have never, ever been allowed back with his mother. We all failed him,” Katrina said, sobbing, as she looked at Christopher’s grave. “We could have been more involved. He shouldn’t be here.”

Christopher isn’t alone. Between fiscal years 2000 and 2011, 223 children were killed after the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services had investigated their cases for alleged abuse or neglect.

While Illinois’ overall homicide rates dropped by 26 percent from 2000 to 2011, The Chicago Reporter found that the number of homicides among DCFS-involved children has remained stubbornly steady—except for a dip in 2010—during the same period, averaging 18 homicides each year.

A Reporter analysis of annual death reports and investigations released by the inspector general shows that more than two-thirds of the homicides were like Christopher’s, perpetrated either by indirect relatives—including the mother’s boyfriend or father’s girlfriend—parents and other direct relatives, or the child’s foster family.

Child-welfare advocates said some of these deaths could have been prevented.

The Reporter analysis shows that nearly 20 percent of the homicides—or 44 cases—occurred within a year after DCFS investigators dismissed the allegations of abuse or neglect as “unfounded.” The target of these “unfounded” investigations committed more than 60 percent of the 44 homicides.

And the agency was actively involved in about 41 percent of the cases at the time of the homicide, either still investigating the allegations of abuse or neglect, or keeping the children with their family member under various modes of supervision. Another 35 percent of the victims were current wards of the state or their children.

Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart said DCFS should be held responsible for the children who had already been in contact with the agency.

“You can’t hold people accountable for being mind readers, but if someone had alerted [DCFS] about the abuse, then it’s troubling,” said Dart, who was a chief sponsor of child-welfare laws in 1994, when he served as a state legislator. “Each case needs to be examined to figure out what it is that we need to change.”

Cook County Public Guardian Robert Harris agreed. Based on the court cases he’s seen, Harris said the quality of some DCFS investigations have suffered over the years.

“Some of the focus has gone off of being able to look at the child to listening to the parents. So some adult tells [the agency] something, and it doesn’t follow through on their own protocol [of interviewing the child], and the child ends up dead as a result of neglect or abuse,” Harris said. “I just think it’s kind of a breakdown in the efficiency of the department.”

Harris questioned whether DCFS is removing children from dangerous homes in time, especially since investigations often take too long because of the caseload.

“The unfortunate thing is it’s like the big abyss,” he said. “There’s been cases where the investigator has showed up after the bruises are gone, or an investigation was labeled unfounded after the investigator couldn’t get a hold of the alleged perpetrator.”

DCFS Director Richard Calica said his department is up against the difficulty of predicting the likely behavior of an abuser. “Our ability to predict whether a kid is going to end up dead or not stinks—‘our’ meaning ‘anybody’s,’” he said. “But when you take a look at us compared to other states, we’re doing about the same as everybody else is in terms of that particular rate.”

Calica added that there’s always room for improvement. “The best I can do is make sure that my workers are all carefully trained … that they all are using the same protocol, all using the same standards, that we continue to try to refine” the system of investigation, he said.

Anita Weinberg, director of the ChildLaw Policy Institute at Loyola University Chicago’s School of Law, agreed about the importance of better training among investigators.

“I think training is critical,” said Weinberg, who also worked at the inspector general’s office. “The training should be about good case-work practices, good investigations and how to convey the information in court.”

Investigators “are supposed to talk to important people in that child’s life to find out what’s going on,” Weinberg said. “So if that hasn’t occurred, that could be an explanation for why [an investigation] was unfounded or why something happened shortly afterward.”

*          *          *

During Dylan Kibayasi’s two-month checkup in 2009, his pediatrician noticed bruises on the baby’s face and a healing cut above his eye.

Following standard procedures, the doctor reported the suspected abuse to police and to DCFS. Both agencies conducted separate investigations. But neither found enough evidence to rule the baby’s bruises as abuse. The DCFS investigator noted that the bruises were actually Mongolian spots, areas of natural skin discoloration.

Even after the pediatrician challenged the DCFS findings, the investigator’s supervisor insisted there was no abuse. She labeled the case “unfounded” and closed it.

Six weeks later, an ambulance was called to the Kibayasi’s home. Dylan was suffering from seizures. The baby was transported to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead. He was 5 months old.

An examination revealed that Dylan had suffered extensive subdural bleeding and multiple injuries. His father, Ibrahim, admitted to shaking the baby, according to a follow-up inspector general’s investigation.

Cases like Dylan’s are calling out for DCFS to reassess its method of conducting abuse investigations, advocates say.

One of the keys in preventing child deaths is identifying the abuse, and doctors should be part of that process and have more influence in the outcome of the investigation, said Dr. Jill Glick, who established the Child Protective Services Team at the University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children’s Hospital.

“Any baby with a bruise under six months of age in my mind should be treated like a bone fracture. Even though it’s a minor injury, it’s a marker for potential abuse because babies do not bruise,” said Glick, who sits on the Cook County Death-Review Team. “Any child reported for a serious injury should have a smart doctor making the diagnosis.”

In Dylan’s case, for example, a doctor went as far as filing a report challenging the investigator’s no-abuse findings, but that report never made it to the investigator or her supervisor, according to the inspector general’s report.

Glick is also worried that resource-starved medical examiners’ offices across the state might have failed to detect the evidence of homicide among the deaths of DCFS-involved children that were classified as “natural death” or “undetermined.” Between fiscal years 2000 and 2011, the inspector general’s office reviewed 1,028 DCFS-involved children’s deaths that were not labeled as homicide.

“When children die, are forensic pathologists trained adequately in the area of child abuse and pediatrics to recognize and discern the difference of why a child died?” Glick said. “There’s no question in my mind that there’s limitations.”

*          *          *

The agency has had a history of problems protecting abused children.

The problems date back to the late ’80s when the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of all children under the custody of DCFS. The lawsuit alleged that the agency was “so overloaded, underfunded and mismanaged that it routinely inflicted terrible harm” on the children in its custody.

By 1991, the parties negotiated a consent decree, which required extensive reform of the agency, including the hiring of more caseworkers and private contractors to help ease the workload, as well as the appointment of a monitor to oversee the settlement. The following year, DCFS also received increased funding of about $104 million—about a 21 percent increase.

Then, in 1993, former Gov. Jim Edgar appointed Denise Kane to head the Office of the Inspector General. Her main task is to investigate any “deaths and serious injuries of all Illinois children who were involved in the child-welfare system in the preceding 12 months.”

Kane’s appointment came more than a week after the hanging death of 3-year-old Joseph Wallace. The baby was killed at the hands of his severely mentally ill mother, Amanda, who was later convicted for the murder. In this case, DCFS had removed Joseph from his mother three times before his death. But each time, privately owned foster-care contractors recommended to judges that the boy be returned home.

Wallace’s death prompted Edgar to fire three state child-welfare workers.

Joseph’s death also led to a new law requiring judges and other officials to consider what is best for an abused or neglected child before making any decision on the future of the child. It also gave foster families limited intervention rights in custody cases if an application has been made to return an abused or neglected child to the parent who caused the problem.

Still, after nearly two decades, some terms of the consent decree have yet to be met, said Benjamin Wolf, the ACLU’s associate legal director in Illinois. The investigators’ caseload, for example, is supposed to get only up to 15 new cases per month, but each investigator still handles an average of more than 20 cases per month, Wolf said.

“You can’t do your job if you have these many cases,” Wolf said. “There is just no way you can adequately investigate each case.”

And the safety of children under DCFS care has remained largely the same, according to “Conditions of Children in or at Risk of Foster Care in Illinois,” a report put together by the Children and Family Research Center, an independent research group based out of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, that was created as part of the consent decree. The rate of children who report abuse or neglect within 12 months of the first abuse has remained flat at 11 percent from 2003 to 2009, the report found.

In recent years, the state’s financial woes have confounded the issue. In 2009, significant cuts in funding for DCFS drove the ACLU to file an emergency motion to block the agency from canceling or reducing mandated services. Both sides worked together to come up with alternate reductions to stay within the terms of the consent decree.

Then, this year, the Illinois General Assembly reduced the agency’s budget by 14 percent, or about $86 million, for fiscal year 2013. Under the budget, the overall number of employees will decrease from 2,961 to 2,586.

But, in an agreement with the ACLU, Calica said that his agency will increase the ranks of “front line” employees by reassigning more than 200 employees who now hold positions that were deemed “redundant, overlapping or unnecessary” as investigators. Such a move, promised by January, is expected to increase the number of investigators by about 100 and bring down their workload to the level that comply with the terms of the settlement.

Wolf called the agreement an important step in ensuring child safety.

*          *          *

But preventing Christopher’s death might have required more than a reduction in investigators’ caseload.

The first sign of abuse appeared on July 1, 2011, when Crystal took Christopher to Hope Children’s Hospital’s emergency room with multiple injuries. She told the doctor, police and a DCFS investigator that the boy fell from the patio table onto cement and hit his head. But the doctor determined the injuries didn’t match Crystal’s explanation, according to reports from an internal DCFS investigation obtained by the Reporter.

Once released from the hospital, Christopher went to live with his grandmother. Crystal, meanwhile, was arrested and later found guilty of child abuse. She was spared jail time but was ordered to 18 months of supervision, as well as parenting and anger counseling. Still, by July 20, Christopher was back living with his mother.

“No child living in the home where he is being abused should be allowed to go back home with a piece of paper to protect them,” said Katrina, the aunt, referring to an order of protection issued by the criminal court. “Christopher was not going to survive with a piece of paper.”

Christopher’s eventual death in November still haunts her. Valdez loved him like a son. She remembers his voice calling her “tia,” or aunt in Spanish, with excitement every time he saw her. When she found his body, she desperately tried to revive him.

“My husband, Joe, called 911 and he told me to start doing CPR on Christopher. I was crying. I could see that he was dead. But I started doing CPR,” she said. Cesar and Crystal were there in the room, standing around. “I could feel that he was not responding. I told my husband, ‘He’s gone, Joe.’”

The medical examiner determined that the boy died between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m.

As Valdez thinks about Christopher’s death, she cries thinking about how things would have been different if the boy had been kept away from Crystal and her boyfriend, Cesar, who are charged with “concealed homicide/endangering a child” and a first-degree murder, respectively.

“DCFS should have not allowed Christopher to go back and live with Crystal and her boyfriend,” Katrina said.

Contributing: Kate Everson, Kyla Gardner and Kaitlyn Mattson.

María Inés Zamudio covers immigration as part of WBEZ's race, class and communities team. She's previously served on investigative teams for American Public Media, the Memphis Commercial Appeal and The...