It’s been five years since 17-month-old Sema’j Crosby was found dead inside her mother’s filthy home, and yet, the tragic and heartbreaking story feels like it happened just yesterday to her father, James Crosby.
The case, which still remains unsolved, is once again making headlines now that Crosby has finally reached a settlement with the Department of Children and Family Services in her death. But despite his long-awaited victory in court, Crosby says his heart still aches for his daughter, and insists that no amount of money will ever bring his little girl back.
Sema’j was first reported missing on April 25, 2017, when her father grew concerned for her welfare.
At the time, the toddler was in the sole care of her mother, Sheri Gordon, who lived in Joliet Township, Illinois. That said, it was clear to the father that the environment his daughter was growing up in was less than ideal.
According to Atlanta Black Star, Gordon’s home on Louis Road was part of an ongoing Intact Family Services case “designed to ensure the safety and well-being of children without the need for protective custody by providing families with needed in-home services.”
Just one day earlier, a caseworker had made an unannounced visit to the residence, where the caseworker quickly found multiple issues with the livng conditions.
The visit turned out to be just one of *many* caseworkers had been asked to make at the home.
In fact, it was noted as the 41st visit in the past seven months, and was made in response to suspicions that children were being neglected and adults were freely using drugs inside the residence.
During the visit, the caseworker made note of how exceptionally dirty the home was, but simply told the mother to clean it up by the time they returned. According to the father’s lawsuit, a follow-up visit was scheduled — but if any attempts to clean the home were made, little was actually done.
The following day, a caseworker returned and once again found the home in disarray.
In a report filed later, the DCFS investigator noted countless markings on the walls, clothes and toys littering the floor, and “dirty dishes and trash left to the side of the kitchen.” But although the state of the home was still not passable, it’s unclear how the mother was reprimanded (if at all).
Just three hours later, Sema’j would be reported missing.
The following day, a more thorough search of the home turned up a gruesome finding.
According to the father’s lawsuit, the Will County Sheriff’s Office began searching the home around 11 p.m. on April 26. But due to the home’s “filthy, unsafe, and unsanitary conditions,” officers had to wear hazmat suits before entering.
Less than two hours into the search, the body of a young child was found hidden beneath a couch without legs. Officers ultimately pronounced the child dead 1:27 a.m. and later confirmed it to be Sema’j Crosby.
A coroner eventually ruled the cause and manner of death to be “homicide by smothering” (or asphyxia).
But as for who was responsible? That has been the subject of heated debate for the past five years.
To date, no one has been charged with Sema’j’s death, and the case is still considered ongoing by the Will County Sheriff’s Office. However, the little girl’s father has never been shy about who he blames for Sema’j’s death: Her mother, Sheri Gordon, and the DFCS.
After finding the child’s body, the sheriff’s office described Gordon’s home as “uninhabitable.”
The department even released photos to illustrate just how filthy and unfit for children the home truly was.
According to ABC 7, a DCFS official stated during a senate hearing in May 2017 that he believed the agency followed “proper procedures” when they left Sema’j and her siblings in the home with their mother.
But a report by the Will County Sheriff’s Office appears to dispute this, stating that the home was considered “unfit for human occupancy,” as it was infested with bedbugs and cockroaches, and filled with garbage. It also lacked a working fire alarm, reports ABC.
In addition, the family had been investigated four times for previous reports of abuse. And yet, Gordon continued to receive state services.
It’s believed that up to 15 people lived inside the home, not counting Gordon and her four children.
Police later described the residents as “squatters,” though some of them might have been blood relatives, according to Crosby’s lawsuit.
Unfortunately, police were unable to fully process the scene, as it was burned to the ground in suspected case of arson just a short time after Sema’j’s body was found.
According to the Black Atlanta Star, the fire destroyed “any evidence that might have led up to the arrest of a murder suspect.”
At the time of his daughter’s death, Crosby was incarcerated and unable to care for Sema’j.
But his lawsuit accused Children’s Home and Aid, a contractor of DCFS, of failing to remove Sema’j from her mother’s custody after learning that the child was living in squalor-like conditions.
“There were so many warnings to Children Home and Aid and to DCFS that this child was in danger,” Crosby’s attorney, Jay Paul Deratany, said. “The floor was disgusting, there were roaches on the wall, the place was condemnable, and they knew it and should have known it.”
In response, the DCFS issued a statement to NBC 5 that defended the state’s actions.
“Improvements in child welfare are never quick or easy,” the statement read. “Many of the challenges we face are longstanding and entrenched, but everyone in this administration is deeply committed to overcoming them and providing the care that our vulnerable children and families truly deserve.”
Now, Sema’j’s father sees his legal victory as confirmation that the state could have — and should have — done more to protect his daughter and her siblings. Sadly, the $6.5 million he was awarded will do nothing to bring his little girl back, but according to Deratany, it will help support the child’s siblings, who are now in the care of other family members.
If you suspect child abuse, you can call the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-422-4453 (1-800-4-A-Child), or go to Childhelp.org. The hotline is available 24/7.