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Editorial: A 6-year-old starved of food — and protection

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An editorial from the Chicago Tribune:

The pathologist determined the preliminary cause of death to be failure to thrive due to extreme malnutrition. The 6-year-old boy weighed approximately 17 pounds when his father brought him to a local hospital on Nov. 3, already deceased.

According to charts from the World Health Organization, the average weight for a 6-year-old boy is around 50 pounds. A normal weight for an infant between the ages of 6 months and one year is 17 pounds. The boy, identified as "Liam" on social media and "L.M.R." in law enforcement records, weighed only as much as a baby.

His father and stepmother, Michael and Georgena Roberts of Jerseyville, Ill., north of St. Louis, face first-degree murder charges. They also face two counts of endangering the life and health of a child. Authorities say they withheld food from Liam and a 7-year-old sibling as punishment. Another 9-year-old child in the home was taken by ambulance to the hospital, according to the Department of Children and Family Services. All five surviving children in the home were placed in protective care.

The criminal complaint from Jersey County State's Attorney Benjamin Goetten says the parents denied food and nourishment to Liam "on a regular and consistent basis," knowing it could cause him to die. Neighbors who spoke to The Telegraph newspaper of Alton said the older children in the home sometimes played outside, but no one saw the younger ones. Law enforcement sources said some of the kids were home-schooled.

Adding to the devastation Liam endured is the fact that it could have been stopped. Someone -- we don't know who -- notified DCFS nearly two years ago that there was inadequate food in the home. That is, someone decided to take action, called the DCFS hotline and tried to help. But the agency closed the case after a pediatrician said Liam's low weight was the result of a medical condition.

Was Liam examined in person by that doctor? Was the boy interviewed by a DCFS caseworker? Were siblings interviewed, away from the parents? Did anyone go inside the home? Did state workers examine the family's past history with the agency? The stepmother, according to The Telegraph, was charged in 2003 with running a meth lab and with possession of cannabis; she pleaded guilty to drug possession.

And while at least one person did notify DCFS, how many others -- perhaps social workers, school personnel, law enforcement officers, neighbors, friends, family -- suspected abuse or neglect but failed to call the DCFS hotline or notify child welfare officials?

All questions unanswered. Law enforcement and DCFS are not yet releasing further details.

What we do know is DCFS had contact with the family, as did a pediatrician. Neighbors said police had been called to the house a few times. Still, a little boy died of horrific and preventable abuse.

We also know that keeps happening in Illinois. In fiscal year 2016, the DCFS inspector general's office investigated 100 deaths of children with whom the agency had previous contact. That's 100 too many.

Some of them died while in youth care. Some died in foster care. Some died of suicide. Some died of street violence. Some died at the hands of their abusers. All of them were on DCFS' radar.

Liam will now become one of those statistics summarized in the IG's annual report. He won't be named. He'll be assigned a number with a few paragraphs describing his senseless suffering. His death.

The new director at DCFS, Beverly "B.J." Walker, says she is changing certain protocols within the agency to clean up its scandalous record of failure. One reason for that record is its revolving-door leadership -- nine directors or acting directors since 2011.

Private nonprofits who contract with DCFS for social services will be monitored more closely. Caseloads of investigators will be examined to make sure staff members are not overloaded. That's some of what Walker promised when she took over the agency in June. Gov. Bruce Rauner, who hired her, and the Illinois General Assembly, whose members monitor her budget, need to make this agency and its mission a higher priority. For the politicians, that will take effort: Abused and neglected kids don't vote, don't contribute to campaigns, don't hire lobbyists to get the pols' attention.

Forgive our impatience, but another innocent Illinois child is dead.

Questions about Liam's tortured life demand answers. Starting with: Who failed to step up?

(c)2017 Chicago Tribune

Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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