DECATUR — The father of 2-year-old Ta’Naja Barnes is suing Webster-Cantrell Hall over the death of his daughter, accusing the Decatur agency of negligence when it oversaw her care months before she died of starvation and neglect.
The nonprofit’s oversight ended in October, when an Illinois Department of Children and Family Services case involving Ta’Naja was closed by a judge. Less than six months later, police found Ta’Naja’s cold, lifeless body on Feb. 11 in the Decatur home where she lived with her mother and mother’s boyfriend. The two have pleaded not guilty to charges of murder and endangering the life and health of a child.
Dartavius Barnes, Ta’Naja’s biological father who lives in Springfield, has said he knew that his daughter was in a bad situation in the Decatur home. He told reporters that he tried to get custody of his daughter and even thought about kidnapping her.
DCFS has launched an investigation into its involvement in the case. Webster-Cantrell Hall had acted on behalf of the state to provide foster care for Ta’Naja and her younger half-brother, and to monitor her for several months after she was returned to her mother.
The federal lawsuit filed May 24 also names Amanda Beasley-Ricks, a foster care case coordinator at Webster-Cantrell Hall.
The Herald & Review reached out to agency CEO Michael Warner and Beasley-Ricks by email for comment on Thursday evening. Webster-Cantrell Hall has previously referred all requests for comment to DCFS.
Police have said that Ta’Naja was found unresponsive, wrapped in a urine-soaked blanket in an unheated room. The child had been returned to the custody of her mother, Twanka L. Davis, and mother’s boyfriend, Anthony Myers, in August, nine months after the state first removed her from their care in December 2017. A judge ordered the case closed in October.
The lawsuit alleges that Webster-Cantrell required employees to close child protection cases “in the most expedient manner without regard to the adequacy of the children’s living situation,” and that it failed to train employees on signs of abuse and neglect.
Barnes had custody of Ta’Naja for a time between March 2018 and June 2018, but she was removed after a hotline call alleged abuse. Ta’Naja was again placed in foster care June 27, and was returned to Davis and Myers on Aug. 8. Webster-Cantrell Hall monitored the home through weekly visits for several months after that, according to information provided by DCFS.
In the lawsuit, Barnes said Webster-Cantrell Hall put his child in “heightened danger” when it removed her from his care and returned her to Davis. He said the agency knew that Davis had a “history of mental illness, parental unfitness with abuse and neglect, drug and alcohol abuse, and an uninhabitable and unsuitable residence for Ta’Naja.”
Barnes has been appointed administrator of his daughter’s estate, according to the lawsuit.
Ta’Naja’s case is one of several high-profile deaths this year of children whose families had been involved with DCFS. Gov. J.B. Pritzker has said that fixing the long-troubled state agency is one of his administration’s highest priorities. On March 27, he chose a new leader: Marc Smith, then executive vice president of foster care and intact services at Olympia Fields-based Aunt Martha's Health & Wellness.
Earlier this month, Pritzker’s office released a report that found a number of problems with the DCFS division charged with keeping families intact. Services for that division are provided to families mostly by private agencies that contract with the department.
The governor has promised reforms, while saying that systemic problems facing DCFS will take time to address fully. "There is nothing more important to me as governor than getting this right," Pritzker said earlier this month.
TIMELINE OF TA'NAJA BARNES DCFS CASE
The following timeline was provided by the Illinois Department of Child and Family Services.
Dec. 23, 2017: DCFS received a hotline call alleging abuse and neglect regarding Ta'Naja. At this time, Ta'Naja was living with her mother, Twanka Davis; her mother’s boyfriend, Anthony Myers; and their child, Ta'Naja’s half-brother.
Dec. 27, 2017: A case was opened. Ta'Naja and her brother were placed in foster care, with the case managed by Webster Cantrell Hall.
Dec. 28, 2017: The court granted DCFS temporary custody of the children. Services to Davis and Myers began immediately and included mental health assessments, parenting classes and substance abuse screening. The family complied.
March 27, 2018: By order of the court, the children were returned home to their parents after successful completion of their parenting classes. Based on case-specific interactions, custody of Ta'Naja was granted to her biological father, Dartavius Barnes. Her brother was returned to Davis and Myers.
Beginning in March 2018, under court supervision, aftercare services were provided to both households by Webster Cantrell Hall. Some services included links to community resources, including programs administered by the Illinois Department of Human Services and the local health department. Visitation between the two families was established. During this time, caseworkers made routine visits with the families.
June 27, 2018: Ta'Naja was removed from Barnes’ home following a hotline call alleging abuse and again placed in foster care.
Aug. 8, 2018: By court order, Ta'Naja returned to Davis and Myers. Webster Cantrell Hall continued to monitor the home through weekly unannounced visits.
Sept. 12, 2018: DCFS received a report alleging Ta'Naja had red scratches on her stomach and a diaper rash. An investigation concluded the report was unfounded; the marks were verified as scarring from a previous incident. No additional services were recommended.
Oct. 24, 2018: Upon recommendation of Webster Cantrell Hall, based on family’s cooperation with services and satisfactory monitoring of the home, the court ordered the case closed.
Nov. 6, 2018: A call was made to the DCFS hotline that the agency said "was taken as an information-only report regarding non-compliance with voluntary community services and medical neglect for lack of immunization." There was no investigation because DCFS found that the information provided did not substantiate allegations of medical neglect.
Feb. 11, 2019: Ta'Naja’s death was reported to DCFS. Her brother was placed in foster care.