Too little, too late

Christopher Valdez was found dead on Nov. 25, 2011, his fourth birthday. His mother, Crystal Valdez, and her boyfriend, Cesar Ruiz, are charged with first-degree murder in his death. (Family photo)

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.