DECATUR — The head of Illinois Department of Children and Family Services said the agency will review its involvement with the family of 2-year-old Ta’Naja Barnes, the Decatur girl police say was allowed to starve and freeze to death by her mother and mother's boyfriend.
“DCFS is devastated by the loss of Ta’Naja Barnes and is working with law enforcement to fully investigate what happened in this case,” said DCFS interim director Debra Dyer-Webster. “We have a responsibility to the children and families we serve to provide the best possible care, and we are committed to understanding where we come up short and striving to do better.”
The statement is extraordinary in its length and frankness. It lists a timeline for the agency’s involvement in trying to protect Ta’Naja, which began in December 2017. The last involvement with her is listed on Nov. 6, 2018, when a call was made to a DCFS hotline alleging “non-compliance with voluntary community services and medical neglect for lack of immunization.”
But Dyer-Webster said no action was taken as “the information provided did not substantiate allegations of medical neglect.”
The next entry in the timeline is for Feb. 11, 2019: “Ta’Naja’s death was reported to DCFS. DCFS opened an investigation, in cooperation with the local (Decatur) police department.”
The full timeline of DCFS involvement begins in Dec. 23, 2017 with a hotline call alleging Ta’Naja was being neglected. At this time the child was living with her mother, Twanka L. Davis, 21, and Davis’ 25-year-old boyfriend Anthony Myers. Both now face murder charges and charges of endangering the life and health of a child through a combination of starvation and neglect.
The DCFS timeline said an investigative case was opened and both Ta’Naja and her younger half-brother were placed in foster care Dec. 27, with the case managed by the Decatur-based Webster Cantrell Hall private agency.
By Dec. 28, 2017, a court had granted DCFS temporary custody of Ta’Naja and her brother while Davis and Myers received mental health assessments and underwent parenting classes and drug screens. “The family was compliant with services. Visitation with Ta’Naja was established for her mother and (biological) father,” Dyer-Webster said.
By March 27, 2018, the children were returned home by court order after the successful completion of parenting classes. But, based on what Dyer-Webster called “case-specific interactions,” the custody of Ta’Naja was granted to her biological father, Dartavius Barnes. Her half-brother was returned to Davis and Myers.
Beginning in March 2018, under court supervision, Dyer-Webster said aftercare services were provided by Webster Cantrell to both the homes of Davis and Barnes. Visitation was established between the two families and caseworkers made routine visits to both homes.
But on June 27, 2018, Ta’Naja was removed from her father’s care after Dyer-Webster said a hotline call alleged abuse; she was again placed in foster care.
“They came and took my daughter from me and I asked why they were taking her from me, and they said somebody had called about alleged abuse, that I was abusing and neglecting my child,” said Dartavius Barnes, 23. “But there wasn’t a mark on her and it was all unfounded.”
Barnes said he believes it was Twanka Davis who contacted a DCFS hotline to cause trouble for him. He also believes DCFS didn’t want him to have custody and “they had no intention of letting me keep my baby.”
On Aug. 8, 2018, Dyer-Webster said Ta’Naja was returned to the home of Davis and Myers by court order. “Webster Cantrell Hall continued to monitor the home through weekly unannounced visits,” added Dyer-Webster.
On Sept. 12, 2018, DCFS said it received a report alleging Ta’Naja had red scratches on her stomach and diaper rash. But an investigation concluded the report was unverified and the marks on the body were judged to be scarring from a previous incident.
By Oct. 24, 2018, following a recommendation by Webster Cantrell Hall, based on “family cooperation with services and satisfactory monitoring of the home," a judge ordered the case closed. “With that case closure, the child welfare community’s involvement with the family ended,” said Dyer-Webster.
The last sad footnotes in the timeline are the Nov. 6, 2018, hotline call which resulted in no action and then the Feb. 11 date when DCFS was told the child had been killed.
Dyer-Webster said DCFS will work with new administration of Gov. J.B. Pritzker to boost its staff of caseworkers and investigators. She cited a budget proposal that would deploy 126 additional “direct service staff” who work children. The agency also wants to upgrade its 30-year-old technology system and said improvements are needed after years of being “hollowed out” by lack of investment.
She said DCFS will undertake a review of “our practices on family involvement following case closure, a specific reference to Ta’Naja’s case, and seek to improve communication with the community of professionals involved in these cases.”