When Crystal Valdez brought her son Christopher to the emergency room last July, a doctor quickly suspected the boy hadn't been hurt in the way his mom claimed.
The bright-eyed 3-year-old with a shock of brown hair and a fascination with superheroes had a golf ball-size lump on his head and a black eye, as well as bruises and welts all over his body.
His mother said the rambunctious toddler had fallen from the patio at the home she shared with her boyfriend, Cesar Ruiz. But the doctor saw clear indications of abuse and made a hotline report notifying the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, which launched an investigation.
The next month, DCFS cleared Valdez of abuse and allowed Christopher to remain with her, even though she had confessed to police that she had beaten him and faced criminal charges over the incident.
The little boy was found dead on the day after Thanksgiving, his body covered with makeup in a crude attempt to hide still more bruises, prosecutors said. According to the first-degree murder charges against them, Ruiz pummeled Christopher to death while his mother watched and did nothing to intervene. It was Christopher's fourth birthday.
Documents obtained by the Tribune as well as court records reveal the agency closed the July abuse investigation sooner than it normally would, missed or ignored key elements of the parallel police investigation, and accepted Valdez's explanation for Christopher's injuries although medical experts concluded he had been physically abused.
"It is absolutely insane what occurred in this case," said Cook County Public Guardian Robert Harris, whose office represents wards of the state but wasn't involved in Christopher's care. "A lot of stuff goes on before a child dies from abuse or neglect. The fact that they missed it totally speaks to someone not doing their job."
In late August, while Valdez, 28, was still awaiting trial on domestic battery charges, the agency found no credible evidence of abuse. Instead, it concluded Valdez merely left the boy unattended, according to records. DCFS found Valdez guilty of neglect and recommended parenting services but took no further action.
While declining to comment on Christopher's case, DCFS spokesman Kendall Marlowe said that generally investigators should not close an abuse investigation while criminal charges are still pending against an alleged abuser.
State records obtained by the Tribune show that the agency appeared to ignore other protocols as well. The case notes make no mention of key details of the police investigation into Christopher's injuries, including the mother's tearful confession that she beat Christopher and had "anger issues."
In more than 30 pages of case notes reviewed by the newspaper, the agency mentioned Valdez's pending criminal case only once. On Aug. 30, an investigator reported that she called the state's attorney's office and spoke to someone who informed her "there is no disposition on the case." There is no record the agency ever called the police detective who interviewed Valdez at the hospital.
That same day, the DCFS investigation was officially closed with a determination that Christopher's injuries — the black eye, swollen head and even bruises on his thigh that the doctor said appeared to be in the shape of fingerprints — were accidental.
The death of a child after recent contact by DCFS triggers an automatic internal investigation of the agency's handling of a case by its inspector general, Marlowe said. In addition, a statewide child death review team made up of independent doctors, police officers and child-care experts will look into Christopher's death and make recommendations to DCFS, he said.
Marlowe argued against using Christopher's case to disparage the system as a whole. In general, he said, DCFS has done much better at the difficult task of assessing when risk is high enough to remove a child from a home and has reduced the number of children who are wards of the state from a record 52,000 in 1997 to about 15,000 by the latest count.
"We need to handle each individual investigation properly and take action to protect every child who is in harm's way," Marlowe said. "At the same time, we cannot repeat the mistakes of the past and remove children from their families indiscriminately."
An energetic boy
Crescencio "Christopher" Valdez was born at Mercy Hospital on Chicago's South Side on Nov. 25, 2007. His biological father, a UPS driver from the Southwest Side, had three other children with Valdez, but the couple never married and had split by the time Christopher was born, according to court records.
Valdez has been described by her parents, Tom and Mary Valdez, as well-meaning but slow mentally and unable to fully support herself. The parents raised her two older children after their births. For the first part of Christopher's life, the family lived together in their home in the working-class Gage Park neighborhood.
By all accounts, Christopher was an energetic boy who loved baseball, running in the park and jumping from patio furniture. On Halloween, just weeks before his death, he was excited to be dressed up as Super Mario — the iconic video game character known for jumping and knocking his head on bricks.
"That was him all the way," his grandfather, Tom Valdez, a stocky Streets and Sanitation driver, testified recently at a custody dispute over Valdez's remaining children. "He was always getting into mischief. Always getting hurt too."
As the family expanded, the Valdezes rented out a coach house in the 5100 block of South Trumbull Avenue, across the alley from their home. For the last year or so of his life, Christopher lived with his mother in the small but tidy one-story house, sharing a twin bed with an older sister, records show.
The Valdez family said trouble didn't start until last spring, when Ruiz moved into the coach house. The Valdezes regarded Ruiz as "bad news" and feuded with him, according to their court statements. Tom Valdez testified that he was not welcome in the home when Ruiz was there. His wife, Mary, said she and Ruiz hardly ever spoke.
Still, no one suspected Christopher was being abused. When his grandmother would take him to the park and see bruises and scratches, she chalked it up to his hyperactivity. She said other marks looked like mosquito bites.
"He was always falling, jumping from the stairs," Mary Valdez testified last week at the custody hearing in Juvenile Court.
Even that night last July 1 when Christopher was taken to the hospital with the bump on his head and the bruises on his body, Crystal's story that he'd fallen from the patio seemed plausible to his grandparents.
DCFS records show that an investigator met with Crystal Valdez at the coach house five days after the hospital physician reported the injuries. According to a narrative of the meeting, Christopher's mother "reported that she does use spankings but only hits him on his rear end with her hand. No one else hits him."
Later that month, the investigator talked to Valdez's three other children, noting that none of them showed any signs of abuse or neglect. That same day, at his grandmother's house, Christopher "appeared to be content and to be well cared for," the investigator noted.
It wasn't until Aug. 18 that Ruiz was interviewed. In brief notes of the conversation, the investigator wrote Ruiz "reported that he helps mom out as needed. He stated that he has not seen anyone hurt the children."
In her last contact with the family, the investigator said the home appeared to be in order with adequate food and working utilities. Valdez said Christopher was going to start preschool the next week. "She is agreeable to any services that may be offered," the investigator wrote.
'You are pretty lucky'
In a Domestic Relations Court trial in October, Chicago police Detective Keith Smith testified that he interviewed Valdez shortly after she brought her son to the hospital. Valdez confessed as soon as Smith told her that the doctor did not believe her story, he testified.
"She put her head down, started to cry and said: 'I'm getting help. I have anger issues. I punched him and hit him,'" a transcript quoted Smith as testifying.
Valdez testified she told the detective that only because she was scared and he was bullying her into making a statement. But in convicting Valdez of misdemeanor domestic battery, Judge James Murphy said he had examined more than two dozen photographs of Christopher's injuries and concluded that Valdez's story didn't add up.
"Some are green and purple bruises … and there are too many and there are too many parts of this child's body to be kid injuries," Murphy said. "This is domestic battery in its purest form."
Since it was her first arrest, Valdez was spared jail time. The judge sentenced her to one year of conditional discharge and ordered her to attend anger management and parenting classes. She was also ordered to have "no unlawful contact" with Christopher.
Then the judge asked about the status of the DCFS investigation and seemed surprised to learn Christopher had not been placed outside the family home.
"I think you are pretty lucky that that little boy is still at home," Murphy said to Valdez as he told her to make sure she followed his orders. "I don't know what DCFS did. I don't know what the results of their questioning was. I don't know who they questioned, but I think these are all things you need to do."
Two weeks before Christopher's death, Valdez underwent a mental-health evaluation as part of her sentence. The therapist recognized "issues of anxiety and anger, suicidal thoughts and a need for healthy coping skills," according to court records. A full psychiatric screening was recommended.
On Thanksgiving, relatives noticed Christopher had a swollen eye and bruises on his body and was throwing up. He wouldn't touch his food.
Concerned, Valdez's brother and sister-in-law went to the coach house the next day — Christopher's birthday — and knocked until Valdez answered. She claimed that her boyfriend and the kids were not home, but moments later the relatives went into the bedroom and found Christopher dead under a blanket, according to the murder charges.
At midnight that night, DCFS sent out a bulletin to internal staff and other child-welfare officials. Called an "unusual incident reporting form," it officially opened a new investigation of the Valdez family.
Only this time it was a death investigation.