Remembering Semaj: funeral for toddler in ‘suspicious' death

CHICAGO (Sun-Times Media Wire) - Four men in long black coats carried the white-and-pink casket that bore Semaj Crosby to her funeral.

The casket was so small that one of them would have been able to carry it alone.

A funeral service was being held Friday morning in Joliet for Semaj, a toddler who was found dead late the night of April 26 in Joliet Township in a home where she’d lived with her family that was described by authorities as being in deplorable condition, the Chicago Sun-Times is reporting.

On Thursday, the Will County sheriff’s office said there is “an ongoing criminal investigation” into the little girl’s death. The sheriff’s office also said in records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times that its officers visited the house where the toddler was found dead nearly 60 times in little more than a year.

Previously, authorities have characterized the toddler’s death as “suspicious” but not “criminal.”

“We have a child that has gone away,” Pastor Warren C. Dorris Jr. told mourners Friday. “We want justice, but we’re here today to give comfort to this family.”

Dorris told reporters, “This community failed this child.”

Semaj’s mother attended the service, clutching a bouquet of pink flowers and facing the tiny, open casket. People stopped by and bent low to hug her.

The sheriff’s office said its officers came to Semaj’s Joliet Township house 59 times between February 2016 and April 2017.

Forty of those calls were for probation checks, records show, and two were for “welfare checks,” one in October 2016 and one on March 4.

In the October call, officers were not able to make contact with the family.

It was unclear whether contact with the family was made during the March visit, and officers wrote that a follow-up report would be filed, though it is unclear whether that occurred.

Among the other reasons for sheriff’s department visits: four were for disturbances, some domestic in nature; four were for “public service;” two were for “crisis intervention;” two were to deliver subpoenas; two were for building checks; one for assistance to the fire department; one for arson and one for the death of Semaj, whose lifeless body was found under a couch about 33 hours after an investigator for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services had been at the house.

The investigator had been at the home less than three hours before Semaj vanished to investigate a previous neglect allegation and saw “no obvious hazards or safety concerns” for the little girl or her two brothers, officials have said. DCFS had been working with the family since September 2016.

Semaj and her family moved into the home in the 300 block of Louis about one year ago, according to the sheriff’s office, though — since her biological parents did not live together — it was not known exactly how much time Semaj spent in the home.

An autopsy did not rule on the girl’s cause of death, pending the results of lab and toxicology tests. There were no obvious signs of trauma or injury, the sheriff’s office said last week, adding that they were still “interviewing cooperating witnesses and some family members.”

No one has been charged with any crime in Semaj’s death.

Photos released earlier this week by the Will County Department of Land Use appeared to support the characterization that the home was in “deplorable” conditions when the child was found dead inside.

“The entire structure appeared unsanitary because of the heavily soiled carpets, walls, garbage and [it] contains a serious degree of filth,” an inspector noted in her report.

The inspector went on to describe the back door and electrical panel blocked by “strollers, black garbage bags, toys, clothing and containers.”

The home was deemed “unfit for human occupancy.”

During a Legislative hearing Wednesday in Springfield, DCFS Director George Sheldon said his department is conducting a review to determine what it missed — if anything — about the case. He expects the agency to complete its investigation within several days.

Sheldon told lawmakers he would release records if police investigations determine the girl died at the hands of a caregiver. If the cause of death is ruled otherwise, Sheldon said, he would not have the authority to order the release. But he told news reporters later that he would “join the media” in asking for such records to be unsealed.

During the Senate panel’s hearing, Sheldon questioned the circumstances of Semaj’s body being found beneath the couch, which had no legs.

“Obviously, something was going on and apparently an individual or individuals attempted to hide that fact,” he said.

It’s not clear who was in the home when the girl disappeared, authorities have said. The Will County Sheriff’s Office said last week that numerous squatters frequented the property.

Sheldon said dirty conditions inside the house were not reason enough to remove Semaj and her brothers from their mother’s care.

“There is no greater exercise of police power by government than to take somebody’s child away, so I think we’ve got to be very cautious about how we do that,” he told reporters after the hearing.

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