Starved disabled girl, 16, weighed only 23 pounds when found

Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 1:34 PM

Christy Gutowski

CHICAGO - When teenager Darlene Armstrong arrived at the emergency room curled on a stretcher, she weighed a skeletal 23 pounds.

In serious condition, the 16-year-old had cerebral palsy and couldn't walk or talk, but the stunned medical staff also focused on her shriveled 3-foot, 10-inch frame, her sunken cheeks and protruding ribs.

The doctors at Comer Children's Hospital at the University of Chicago agreed the girl had been starved for some time.

"Darlene has suffered from severe, long-standing, life-threatening malnutrition/starvation combined with unacceptable medical neglect," a hospital record said of the March incident.

It's now clear that the severely disabled teen could have received crucial help four months earlier if an investigator and her supervisors at the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services had done their jobs properly, the Chicago Tribune has learned.

The agency had received a Nov. 17 hotline call that Darlene wasn't being fed - an urgent matter under DCFS rules - but the investigator repeatedly walked away from the family's South Side home without seeing Darlene and without enlisting other resources, records show.

It wasn't until her fourth visit in March that she heard whimpering, confronted the mother and called 911.

The case underscores continued problems at DCFS as it deals with high child abuse and neglect caseloads. In recent months, the newspaper also has examined troubling child deaths and the agency's failure to inspect many day-care facilities as required - issues that have raised new questions about whether a system designed to save children is failing them.

Documents obtained by the Tribune indicate Darlene Armstrong's case was mishandled from the beginning:

Although the investigator went to the home within the required 24-hour hotline response period, she failed to follow other procedures to help workers locate the child. Nor did she return each day as required until that happened.

Before Darlene was rescued there is no evidence the worker looked up the family's history with DCFS as required. If she had done so, the investigator would have realized the agency took protective custody of Darlene years earlier due to the same allegations of medical neglect and malnourishment.

A supervisor failed to alert two later shifts, as required, to continue looking for Darlene on the first day the investigator didn't make contact. The supervisor and her manager also improperly granted extensions beyond the initial 60-day period set to resolve such cases, despite minimal effort to find the girl.

DCFS admits serious mistakes were made.

"An investigation this badly neglected is a failure of supervision and management," said Kendall Marlowe, agency spokesman. "We are taking appropriate actions to right that ship and ensure this organization places the proper priority on child safety."

DCFS investigators have struggled to keep up with high caseloads during repeated budget cuts. More than 60 percent of the agency's 457 active investigators have been assigned more work than allowed under a federal consent decree, according to DCFS data.

As a result, the percentage of investigations still pending after the 60-day deadline has risen sharply.

The caseload for the investigator handling Darlene's case also was higher than permitted, but the response to the hotline call exposes a systematic breakdown of procedures, officials said.

The investigator and her supervisors face possible disciplinary action, officials said. The Tribune is not identifying them because no formal action has been taken against them.

Meanwhile, Darlene is now improving at La Rabida Children's Hospital and eventually will go to a nursing facility for long-term care, officials say.

The teen smiles and can hum and recognize names and faces.

After her rescue, police inspected the modest white-frame home where she lived with her mother, Rosetta Harris.

Investigators found the house clean with adequate food on the premises, records show.

Harris, who did not have a prior criminal history, would plead guilty in the case to endangering the life of a child, a misdemeanor. She has been placed on a form of probation for 18 months and ordered to undergo parenting classes.

The unemployed single mother earlier in the spring invited a Tribune reporter into her home near the Altgeld Gardens public housing project. She denied starving Darlene, now 17.

"I was a good mother," Harris, 50, insisted in a quiet voice. "My daughter was well cared for."

DCFS has taken Darlene and her 15-year-old sister into protective custody. Harris also has three adult children. A sixth child, Derrick, was killed when he was 15 in a drive-by shooting in February 1996.

DCFS hotline calls that same year alleged that Darlene, then a 1-year-old, wasn't being fed regularly, so the agency first took protective custody. She and her siblings were placed with Harris' sister.

Darlene had been diagnosed at birth with fetal alcohol syndrome, records state.

"Mother does appear to provide all care necessary for siblings, but has a problem following through on the care of her special needs child," a DCFS worker wrote in a 1996 case note. Harris won back custody about three years later.

Harris acknowledged removing Darlene from special-education classes in 2000 "after DCFS left" because the mother said she wanted her daughter home with her, according to hospital records. She could not recall when Darlene last saw a doctor or had been outside.

)2012 Chicago Tribune

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