Semaj’s Tears

*PLEASE NOTE: I am in no way implying that anyone in Semaj’s home, or in her family is guilty of causing her death. The circumstances around her death are still largely unknown, and is currently being investigated.*

*PLEASE NOTE: Descriptions of child abuse are included in this article. Please use discretion*

Author: Morgan Lee

I started my routine like I did every day: I woke up, stretched, grabbed my phone, and swiped to the news. The first story I saw was about an Illinois girl named Semaj Crosby.

I braced myself for the news.

Per the news story, Semaj was found deceased in a home she shared with her family, after being reported missing just days earlier. What I read next made me sit up in bed: Earlier in the evening, before being reported missing, a social worker who’d had contact with Semaj and her family, visited the home and noted no safety concerns.

I digested this information. I’ve worked in the field of mental health, working with children, for approximately 10 years. I’ve made countless calls to CYF (Children/Youth and Family) when any of the children I’ve worked with have reported or witnessed anything that hints of abuse. In keeping with transparency, I have never made a child welfare call without the knowledge of the parent. Historical abuses of power, combined with a lack of cultural respect and understanding, have made for a veritable powder keg between the Black community and social service agencies.

In the case of Semaj, her family, (who’d had considerable contact with social services according to published reports) were living in what was said to be ‘deplorable’ conditions by police and media. In viewing some of the published photographs of the alleged home, it is difficult to disagree.

I started to ask myself, “What the hell was this worker thinking? Why weren’t they doing their job? Why is this kid dead?” I put my phone down, and closed my eyes. The faces of Elisa Izquierdo, Nixzmary Brown, Justina Morales, Rilya Wilson, Peter Kema, and Joseph Wallace floated through my brain. All were black and brown children who resided in homes that were currently (or had been) under investigation by social service agencies at one point or another.  And all of them died at the hands of their abusive parents and caregivers (Rilya Wilson remains missing). I instead closed my eyes, and asked out loud, “Why are we expecting anything different from a system that is created from a system meant to see us fail?”

I knew the answer, but I didn’t want to face it. “Throwaway children”. “Statistics.” “Damaged goods.” “Leftovers.” It was quite simple: black and brown bodies are not respected, valued, and have absolutely no autonomy—-and it starts before birth. There is little empathy or allotted for black and brown children in the system, and no amount of legislation reform will change that. There is the idea that somehow, if we just pass the right legislation, improve unification laws, and more adequately train social workers, that there will be change. But isn’t this the rallying cry every time we lose one of our kids? And if so, how do we fix something that is irreparable? Furthermore, why are we trying to? Why would those who lead the system want the system that benefits them to change? I have witnessed firsthand black and brown parents railroaded in custody hearings, shouted down in family meetings, and dismissed when they voice their concerns. The children are often treated as pawns in a sick game that parents have no chance of winning. Black parents who are struggling with mental illness are further marginalized by a system that offers little hope or support to them, and in no way is this illustrated more than with the case of Joseph Wallace. Joseph, a 2-year old from Chicago, was supposed to be the catalyst for “change” and “improvement” of the child welfare system in Illinois after his tragic death. In 1993, over the objections of his foster family, the courts returned Joseph and his younger brother to their biological mother, Amanda. Very soon after, Amanda Wallace stood Joey on a chair, looped an extension cord around his neck, looped the other end around a transom, waved good-bye to him, and kicked the chair from under his feet, hanging him. In response, Illinois made sweeping laws to its child welfare policy, working to ensure that “no child would ever be failed by the system again.” Yet here I sit writing about a sweet-faced 16 month old, who died while under eyes of the same welfare system in the same state.

Very often (too often), I’m asked what we can be done to improve the system. As a fresh-faced 20-something mental health worker, I’d have a million responses, many of which involved reform, and working from within the system to enact change. Now, 10 years later, I’ve come to the grim realization that no amount of reform will save black and brown kids, simply because the system is working perfectly for those in power. Why would they fix what isn’t broken?

Morgan Lee is a social services professional who enjoys baking, home renovation DIY and sleeping in. She lives in the Northeast with her husband and several hundred books and albums.

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