Saturday, October 18, 2014

 

System failed to avert battered child's slaying

The family rented the ramshackle two-flat for nearly three years without neighbors realizing the raven-haired girl with dark eyes lived there. 

No one recalled her ever playing outside,walking with friends to a nearby park or waiting for a school bus in the morning.


It wasn't until Sept. 5, when emergency crews blanketed the Waukegan neighborhood to investigate her mother's 911 call about an unresponsive child, that details of the 11-year-old's tortured life began to emerge.

Raashanai Coley suffered prolonged abuse and malnutrition, weighing about 55 pounds, and died of injuries from a lethal blow to her stomach, according to authorities.

As her mother, Nicholette Lawrence, 32, faces murder charges, a Tribune review of the disturbing case reveals shortcomings in the state's multilayered system designed to protect children. Despite repeated contact with police, court and child welfare officials, authorities failed to piece together the family's troubled history and recognize the danger Raashanai faced.

Less than three months before her death, Waukegan police investigated an anonymous complaint of child abuse at the home. Officers left minutes later, not finding any evidence of a problem. Interviews and records show they never saw Raashanai, wrote a report or followed up, despite earlier domestic disturbances, evictions and child-abuse complaints involving the family.

The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services wasn't notified about that complaint, but in July 2013 the agency received a hotline call about the family. DCFS did not investigate the tip further, though it found credible evidence two years earlier that Raashanai's stepfather had abused her.

Police arrested him in August 2011 for allegedly beating her when the family lived elsewhere in town. Swollen-faced and timid, Raashanai told a Waukegan officer her stepfather hit her almost daily for no reason, according to a police report.

Officers followed up with DCFS as required after the 2011 arrest. The agency launched an investigation, but it did not take Raashanai into temporary protective custody. Instead, DCFS left her and two younger siblings in their mother's care with the promise she would not allow her husband to have unsupervised contact with the kids.

Lawrence declined an offer of voluntary support services from DCFS, and she bailed her husband out of jail - a red flag that experts say shows the parent may be more motivated to protect his or her partner than his or her child.

Lawrence had pleaded guilty in Nevada to pandering of a child, according to records. She also was investigated in her home state of Oregon after allegedly exposing her daughter to the mother's adult-entertainment business and possible "criminal activity," records show.

DCFS investigators are required under agency procedure to interview child welfare officials in the state a family moved from if its members lived in Illinois less than five years. It's unclear whether the agency in 2011 knew the family had moved to Illinois a few years earlier.

DCFS acting Director Bobbie Gregg said the agency is reviewing how it handled the case but that it doesn't appear any procedure was violated. The agency, she said, has limited legal authority to remove a child from a parent's custody and does so only if it finds an "imminent and immediate" risk of harm.

"It's unfortunate that children are hurt by people who have a responsibility to care for them," Gregg said. "The department has responsibilities. Teachers, medical workers, social workers, police - we all have responsibilities to try and protect those children. But it's not a perfect system. It just isn't."

At the time of her death, Raashanai was living in a Gillett Avenue flat with her mother and two younger siblings. An older half-brother had been taken away from the mother several years ago in Oregon.

Prosecutors said Lawrence confessed to punching Raashanai in the stomach in their home on Sept. 3, two days before the girl was pronounced dead, as well as beating her earlier with an extension cord. The girl's body was covered in scars, bruises, cigarette burns and ligature marks, they said.

After learning of the pain Raashanai endured, residents in her Waukegan neighborhood felt compelled to respond. On a recent Sunday afternoon, their bake sale raised nearly $4,000 for the slain child's cremation. Her remains were sent to the mother's relatives in Oregon.

Neighbors also plan to dedicate a bench in her memory at the local park where she apparently was not allowed to play.

"We felt our whole community failed this child," said Nichol Acosta, who helped with the fundraising. "She was failed by her parents. She was failed by the system. She was failed by everyone - period. We want to make sure everyone connects and is more aware of our surroundings, so some good comes out of this in some way."

A troubled past

Most of Raashanai's extended family lives in northwest Oregon, and relatives said they hadn't seen her since 2007, when her mother took her to Texas to live with her and her new husband. The couple later moved to Illinois.

The slain girl's biological father, Raashan Coley, was in prison for most of the first 4 1/2 years of her life with convictions for robbery and assault.

Coley and other relatives said Lawrence made it difficult to keep in touch, often blocking or changing her phone number.

"She cut everyone else out of her life," said Linda North, Lawrence's stepmother. "When she was here, she had all these people around her guiding and helping her, but after she left, she really pushed away from us."

In December 2002, while pregnant with Raashanai, Lawrence was arrested in Las Vegas after being accused of driving an underage girl from Oregon to Nevada for prostitution, according to a police report.

Lawrence later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor conspiracy to pandering of a child and was placed on probation. Less than one month later, in April 2003, Raashanai was born.

Worried about their granddaughter, North said, she and her husband contacted Oregon child welfare officials in 2005. Records show Oregon officials in their case reports raised questions about Lawrence's parenting, especially since her firstborn - a son - already had been "removed from mom's care."

Authorities said in the May 2006 state human services report that Raashanai was autistic and that they were concerned Lawrence was involved in adult-oriented business and "criminal activity." Afterward, the records said, Lawrence voluntarily gave guardianship of her daughter to her father and stepmother.

North said Raashanai made strides in language and in other early intervention programs while she lived with them, but officials allowed the child to join her mother in Texas about a year later. Officials in Oregon said they could not discuss the case.

Warnings missed


Raashanai's death comes amid continued public scrutiny for DCFS, which has faced repeated budget cuts, leadership changes and even has become fodder in the heated governor's race.

Historically, 1 in 4 children who die of abuse or neglect in Illinois had prior DCFS involvement, according to agency statistics. A September 2012 Tribune report identified about 200 such fatalities - mostly due to neglect - that occurred from 2000 to 2011.

Similarly, Raashanai was known to myriad authorities. Police responded repeatedly to the family's various apartments in the last four years for complaints about domestic fights and alleged child abuse, records show.

In the August 2011 police call, a neighbor said she heard a little girl crying while possibly being beaten in a first-floor apartment in their building, according to the police report. The right side of Raashanai's face was swollen when an officer took the 8-year-old child out on the front steps and asked what happened.

"She stated that she was in the kitchen cleaning up and sweeping the floor," the police report says. "She stated that her stepfather, for no apparent reason, punched and slapped her face at least 10 times, mainly to the right side of her face."

Police arrested the stepfather, Robert Lawrence, and called the DCFS hotline as required. Nicholette Lawrence was at work at the time, and although she declined a DCFS offer for domestic violence help and other support services, she agreed her husband would not be allowed around the children unsupervised, officials said.

Robert Lawrence, 46, later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor battery and was placed on court supervision, records show. He has not been charged with wrongdoing in his stepdaughter's death.

Nearly two years later, on July 16, 2013, someone called the DCFS hotline with a request to check on the family. DCFS officials said the hotline worker did not accept the complaint as a report of abuse or neglect that would have required an investigation. Instead, the caller was instructed to call police, according to the child welfare agency.

Police said they do not have any record the caller followed through with them to seek help.

On June 21, 11 weeks before the killing, officers investigated an anonymous report from someone who said it sounded as if "kids were being beaten" in the home, said Waukegan police Cmdr. Joe Florip.

He said officers spoke with two adults and two children, both of whom appeared "smiling and happy." Police had little information to go on and lacked the legal right to search the home, Florip said. Although Waukegan officers investigated the 2011 abuse of Raashanai at the couple's former apartment, police wouldn't have had immediate access to that background, he said.

Florip confirmed police did not see Raashanai that June evening.


"The whole case is just so tragic," he said. "Everybody wishes they could have saved this little girl. We want to protect those that need protecting. That's why we became police officers. But based on what they saw and after talking to the children, there was not enough evidence to investigate further."

Another layer of oversight that might have helped was not available in Raashanai's case. More than 20 percent of DCFS hotline calls come from school officials, but Nicholette Lawrence pulled her daughter out of Waukegan District 60 in summer 2012 in favor of a home school education, officials said.

Illinois is among 13 states that don't require parents to register when a child is home-schooled or grant state or regional education authorities much oversight power.

"Unfortunately, the law regarding home schooling is not very firm so, no, there is no monitoring system," said Monika Schwander of the Lake County Regional Office of Education.

"Once the family says they are going to home-school their child, we send them a one-page registration form. Unfortunately, they do not even need to send that form back to us."

'We felt horrible'

Nicholette Lawrence remains in custody, charged with first-degree murder. Authorities said the mother told them she was her daughter's sole caretaker and that her husband was not involved in Raashanai's death.

DCFS has placed the couple's two children in temporary protective custody in a foster home.

Many neighbors said they often heard the couple arguing and saw police when they came to the home, but never suspected child abuse. On rare occasions when they saw Raashanai, they assumed she was just visiting.

"We felt horrible ... that we didn't know she was even there," said Danielle Bentivegna.

Bentivegna and other neighbors organized last month's bake sale to raise money for Raashanai's funeral expenses. Going forward, they want to ensure they take a more active role in looking out for each other.

"It definitely has brought us closer," Bentivegna said. "We're more aware and question more things."

On Oct. 5, the neighbors planted a hydrangea tree in the girl's memory. Afterward, several of them chatted about the day's event while sipping coffee and hot cider around a kitchen table.

That same day, in Independence, Ore., the child's funeral was held in a local church, North said. Among the 50 well-wishers were her preschool teachers and speech therapists.

Her final resting place will be in a Willamette Valley cemetery, surrounded by distant hills.

North said she does not want Raashanai's legacy to be about tragedy.

"I really want her to be about hope and change and (making) a difference in someone's life, and I believe she's already done that," she said. "That brings us some comfort."
Tags : ,

Share

Social

The idea behind the text.
Respect for the truth is almost the basis of all morality.
Nothing can come from nothing.



Follow

Popular Topics

Read

Well, the way they make shows is, they make one show. That show's called a pilot. Then they show that show to the people who make shows, and on the strength of that one show they decide if they're going to make more shows.

Like you, I used to think the world was this great place where everybody lived by the same standards I did, then some kid with a nail showed me I was living in his world, a world where chaos rules not order, a world where righteousness is not rewarded. That's Cesar's world, and if you're not willing to play by his rules, then you're gonna have to pay the price.

You think water moves fast? You should see ice. It moves like it has a mind. Like it knows it killed the world once and got a taste for murder. After the avalanche, it took us a week to climb out. Now, I don't know exactly when we turned on each other, but I know that seven of us survived the slide... and only five made it out. Now we took an oath, that I'm breaking now. We said we'd say it was the snow that killed the other two, but it wasn't. Nature is lethal but it doesn't hold a candle to man.

You see? It's curious. Ted did figure it out - time travel. And when we get back, we gonna tell everyone. How it's possible, how it's done, what the dangers are. But then why fifty years in the future when the spacecraft encounters a black hole does the computer call it an 'unknown entry event'? Why don't they know? If they don't know, that means we never told anyone. And if we never told anyone it means we never made it back. Hence we die down here. Just as a matter of deductive logic.