12:01 a.m. CST, March 1, 2012
The little boy’s younger sister, the mother said, had caused the scratch marks that peppered his chest.
The boy, Lavandis Hudson, 2, was a veteran of the child welfare system by then. Shortly after his premature birth, he had been taken into protective custody with crack cocaine in his system, records show.
But the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services chose not to put the boy back in protective custody after the June hotline call and, within days, allowed his mother to take him home, records indicate.
Three weeks later, on July 21, Lavandis died from a beating, officials said.
Authorities charged his mother, Marles S. Blackman, 37, with first-degree murder Wednesday.
A DCFS official has confirmed his agency investigated Blackman twice before the boy’s death.
Interviews and confidential records obtained by the Tribune reveal that, despite the boy’s battered condition in the hospital and Blackman’s troubled past, DCFS accepted her explanation that the injuries were accidental. Warning signs were missed by the agency and others, the interviews and records indicate.
The violent deaths of Lavandis and other children, including 4-year-old Crescencio “Christopher” Valdez, of Chicago, have raised questions about what DCFS knew or should have known about persistent allegations of abuse and how the agency handles such cases. The Tribune reported that Christopher was found dead under a blanket on his birthday in November with makeup covering his bruises. His mother and her boyfriend were charged with murder.
The deaths underscore concerns about staffing levels and other issues during a time of state budget shortfalls.
Cook County Public Guardian Robert Harris said his office had agreed with a juvenile judge to close Lavandis’ file four months before the boy’s death, after DCFS determined Blackman was compliant with all directives in her son’s care. Harris said if the boy had been taken back into protective custody in June, his office would have had the right to intervene and would have insisted Lavandis remain a ward of the state because of the recent injuries and the stress on Blackman caused by the deaths of close family members, including her mother.
“There were a lot of red flags,” Harris said. “With her history and so much going on, they should have erred on the side of caution and taken the child in June.”
DCFS spokesman Kendall Marlowe said credible evidence was found after the boy’s death to support abuse allegations. The case triggered an automatic internal investigation by the agency’s independent inspector general. In addition, a child death review team of doctors, police and welfare experts will investigate.
The boy’s father, who is estranged from the mother after a brief relationship, told the Tribune that he begged the DCFS investigator at the hospital in June to release his son to him. He said his pleas were ignored.
“They gave him to the wrong parent,” said Herbert Hudson, 56, of Blue Island. “If they had given me my son, he’d still be alive today.”
The child’s short, injury-plagued life is well documented in DCFS reports and in other records obtained by the Tribune.
Two days after Lavandis was born on Jan. 5, 2009, in MetroSouth Medical Center in Blue Island, a DCFS investigator described in her case notes the sight of the tiny 3-pound baby hooked up to a ventilator and other machines.
Born at 31 weeks, Lavandis was exposed to cocaine and opiates. Doctors also suspected fetal alcohol syndrome, records show. His prognosis for survival wasn’t good. But the boy was a fighter. He began breathing on his own within 48 hours.
Five weeks after his birth, DCFS placed him into protective custody, citing Blackman’s neglect, because drugs were found in his system, according to records. The department entrusted Lutheran Social Services of Illinois, a Des Plaines nonprofit agency, to find a good home for Lavandis. Officials placed him with a foster family in the western suburbs.
Records show Blackman cooperated with the state investigation in the hope Lavandis would be returned to her.
The woman, then 34 and living in Robbins, had a history of depression and had attempted suicide three times, according to state documents. She estimated having 30 physical altercations with different people, including one in which she drove over a violent drug dealer’s leg, records show. She was charged with battery and assault in some of the incidents but was never convicted, court records show.
She also admitted to starting a fire in her mother’s South Side home in 2003 by igniting a mattress after a family dispute, according to DCFS records. No one was injured, but the home was destroyed.
According to state records, she reported drinking alcohol at age 9, smoking marijuana at 13 and being a regular crack cocaine user by her 18th birthday.
At one point, she told DCFS authorities, she had been drug free for three years but relapsed while pregnant with Lavandis. She admitted twice smoking crack cocaine while pregnant, including two days before his birth, records show.
Lavandis was her sixth child and the third born with drugs in his system, according to records. She gave birth to her seventh child, a girl, in December 2009.
DCFS was involved with at least four of her older children, all of whom live with their fathers or other relatives, records show.
Determined to raise Lavandis, she sought drug treatment, counseling and parenting classes, and for nearly two years was compliant with all the court requirements involving her son, according to records.
Hudson, the boy’s father, is 20 years older than Blackman and once had his own problems with the law. In 1990, he went to prison for 27 months for attempted murder, court records indicate. He acknowledged his past but said he complied with court-ordered parenting classes and played an active role in his son’s life.
Hudson said he began noticing bruises, welts and scratches on Lavandis’ body months before the boy’s death. He repeatedly called the private agency caseworker to complain, he said. A spokesman for the agency declined to comment.
The last time he saw his son alive, Hudson said, was in MetroSouth Medical Center on June 28.
Records show Blackman brought their son to the emergency room on that date telling doctors he fell off a bed two days earlier while playing with his cousins.
Suspicious about the boy’s injuries, the doctor called the hotline to report suspected abuse. The child also had scratch marks on his left finger, left shoulder, chest and arm, “too many to describe,” a report states.
The DCFS investigator who was sent to the hospital initiated a safety plan with her supervisor’s approval whereby both children stayed overnight with a relative of Blackman’s live-in boyfriend.
Records show a new investigator, with her supervisor’s permission, made the decision June 30 to terminate the safety plan after interviewing Blackman and two former Lutheran Social Services caseworkers who said she had “changed her life around” and would not harm the boy.
The next day, July 1, the investigator observed Lavandis’ injuries when she went to the home of the boyfriend’s relative. When asked what happened, the child told her that he fell, according to records.
The investigator allowed the boy and his sister to go home with their mother. The investigator followed up with a visit five days later, cautioning Blackman to watch her son more closely, records show.
On that same day, July 6, Blackman’s mother died. Her brother died four days later of a heart attack. The funerals were July 13.
The next day, Blackman took Lavandis to Advocate South Suburban Hospital in Hazel Crest for a possible broken arm. The arm was fine, but hospital staff asked her about marks on his body and a bite on his abdomen, according to records. Blackman said she did not harm her son, saying his 18-month-old sister was responsible. Lavandis also frequently scratched himself because of dry skin, she said.
On July 20, she called 911 from her Midlothian apartment. She told responders that she was in the kitchen preparing dinner when she heard a “thump” and found Lavandis unresponsive.
He was airlifted to Advocate Hope Children’s Center in Oak Lawn, where tests showed he was brain dead.
Hudson told a Tribune reporter about rushing to his son’s bedside. He pleaded with the quiet child who loved playing with balls, cars and puzzles to overcome the medical odds yet again, he said.
“I said, ‘Come on, Lavandis. Come on, Lavandis. Your Daddy is here,'” said Hudson. “The nurse said, ‘He can’t hear you, sir. He’s already (brain) dead.'”
The child was taken off life-support and died the next day, July 21.
The death was detailed in the Cook County autopsy report. The pathologist recorded a serious brain injury because of blunt-force trauma, possible strangulation and several cuts, bruises and possible bite marks on his face, torso, buttocks, back and extremities.
The boy’s ribs were visible. Several injuries were healing, indicating a pattern of prior abuse.
The pathologist also noted defensive injuries on his right and left upper arms and hands.
DCFS then took the boy’s younger sister into protective custody.
Midlothian police Detective Sgt. Dan Delaney told the Tribune the 911 call originally came in as a possible seizure but, after the autopsy results pointed to child abuse, authorities began investigating the toddler’s death as a homicide. Local police were assisted by the South Suburban Major Crimes Task Force.
Experts such as Harris, the public guardian, questioned whether opportunities to intervene were missed.
Agency records do not include documentation of any follow-ups from the investigator after her July 6 visit to the home, where she encouraged Blackman to pay closer attention to her son.
Other missed warning signs include the mother’s two-day delay in June to bring Lavandis to the emergency room, the inconsistency in her explanation of the boy’s injuries and the deaths in her family that impacted her emotionally.
These are all considered important factors to help assess a child’s risk, according to past findings by the DCFS inspector general.
Blackman consistently denied intentionally harming Lavandis.
On her son’s funeral program, she wrote a message to the child she called “Vando.”
It read: “I only had you for a short time. In that time, we grew to love each other very much. You were my light on my darkest days. You made me smile when I wanted to cry. You brought happiness to all that came in contact with you. You were a true Angel.”
She signed it, “Love Mommy.”
Responding to the charges Wednesday, Hudson said, “I’m glad people will finally know the truth about what happened.”
Copyright © 2012, Chicago Tribune
Rush Limbaugh loses another sponsor over ‘slut’ remark
Justin Bieber gets a Fisker Karma for his 18th birthday on ‘Ellen’
Toddler freezes to death in Alaska; mom charged
Chris Bosh again out for Heat against Lakers
Toddler freezes to death in Alaska; mom charged
You might like:
- Bruce Weber sees St. Louis Cardinals as inspiration for postseason hope (Chicago Sports Guru)
- Meet Montana’s Racist Federal Judge – Richard Cebull (It’s Never Just Black And White)
- Our NFL Opening Round Draft Party: Preliminary Details (DA BEARS BLOG)
- Northwestern needs 3 Wins to grab a NCAA Tournament berth (Chicago Sports Guru)
- I never would have made it into a Selective Enrollment High School (Little Kids, Big City)
FROM AROUND THE WEB
- 8 Types Of Non-Taxable Income (Can Do Finance)
- Chicago Bulls’ Derrick Rose doesn’t think All-Star Game dancing was right (ESPN)
- 4-Year-Old’s Drawing Leads to Dad’s Arrest (The Stir By CafeMom)
- 21-Year Old Lottery Winner Keeps Waitress Job (Bangstyle)
- 2 Drugs FDA Recommends You Stay Away From (HealthCentral.com)