PEORIA, Ill. — A lengthy report on the state of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) links the agency to the deaths of more than one hundred children last year.
The annual report, by the Office of the Inspector General, says 123 kids died in 2019 despite having prior contact with DCFS.
Among them was 8-year-old Rica Rountree of Normal.
Pictures taken during her short life show the second-grader smiling for the camera, but they do not capture the gruesome reality of Rica’s life as it was later described in a McLean County courtroom. There, prosecutors played cellphone videos documenting months of torture ending with a deadly kick to the stomach in January 2019.
Her father’s then-girlfriend, Cynthia Baker, was convicted of Rica’s murder late last year. Richard Rountree now faces a child endangerment charge linked to her death.
Rica’s mother says they are not the only people responsible for her daughter’s murder.
“I told DCFS, man, y’all got to pull my baby out. Y’all got to take her somewhere safe,” Anntoinetta Rountree said in an exclusive interview with WMBD.
In the 384 page report on DCFS, a single page summarizes Rica’s life and death. She’s one of ten kids in Central Illinois who was connected to the agency and died in 2019.
The document says Anntoinetta called the agency’s hotline in 2017 after Rica told her she’d been whipped with a belt. According to the report, the investigation was closed 24 hours later because “no marks were observed on the child.”
“Whenever they did their investigations, I bet they didn’t lift her shirt. I bet they didn’t have her pull her pants down,” Rountree said. “If they would have looked at her, they would have seen.”
Eighteen months after her mother reported the abuse, Rica was dead. Her autopsy revealed “…Approximately thirty scars on her back and torso indicative of abuse.”
“They need to change the way they look at stuff. The system has to change. DCFS has to change,” Rountree said.
A DCFS spokesperson declined to comment on Rica’s case, but said in a statement to WMBD that the agency has been challenged by funding cuts and staff reductions.
The statement goes on to say, “Overhauling the department and reversing long-standing problems in the child welfare systems won’t happen overnight, but we are making dramatic improvements and we are deeply committed to getting this right.”
“You can’t just go in and put a bandaid on one piece here. You certainly can’t sit and blame DCFS. They can make improvements like we all can, and they know that,” CEO of the Center for Youth and Family Services Tony Riordan said.
The organization is ranked number one in the state for large foster care program agencies. It serves 1,500 kids a year.
Riordan says, overall, the child welfare system has shifted. Decades ago 50,000 children were in foster care in Illinois. Now, that number is less than 20,000 as the state moves away from removing kids from their family homes.
“The cases we do have in care now, they’re probably harder than they used to be,” he said. “The cases that we do leave at home, there are a lot more.”
That combination is putting additional pressure on a system with a shrinking workforce and a growing caseload, and Riordan says solving that problem is larger than any one agency.
“This isn’t a Peoria only issue,” he said. “This is a societal issue, in general, about creating institutions and supports for families and children to help them thrive and be safe.”