Nearly four months after deadly Hammond fire, several questions remain
The photos of 4-year-old Dasani Young and his 3-year-old sister Alexia hang on the walls of a home in Northwest Indiana.
But this is not the home of their birth parents. Instead it belongs to their one-time foster mother, who says the pictures are a painful reminder of what was lost.
“Yeah, I still cry,” says the foster mom who took care of the children for about a year until last summer. “I think about them constantly. Once in a while I’ll still find something of theirs in the house. The other day I was doing laundry and cleaning out my laundry room and I found Dasani’s Superman and well, there’s the tears,” she said.
The foster mother asked WBEZ not to use her name to protect other children placed in her care.
“When kids come into this house, yes they have a mom and dad. I am not trying to replace them but as long as they live here, they’re my babies,” she told WBEZ in an exclusive interview. “Ok, it’s my job to take care of you. That’s what I tell my kids. It’s my job.”
But the foster mom says that job was taken away from her last June 30th, the day the Lake County, Indiana’s Juvenile Court ordered the return of Dasani, Alexia and another sibling to their birth parents. A case worker arrived to pick up the children.
“Was I afraid for them to go home?" the foster mother asked with a sigh. "Yeah. Dasani begged the case worker not to make him go.”
That decision — to return the children to their parents — continues to haunt not only the foster mom, but everyone else who had a stake in the kids’ well being, from a Lake County judge to the head of Indiana’s Department of Children Services. Nearly four months later, no one has been officially charged with wrongdoing. But a WBEZ investigation reveals there are still many questions about who is responsible for Indiana’s children.
The children eventually left the foster mother’s home in a nearby city to move to a duplex rented by the birth parents on the 600 block of Sibley Street. Close to downtown Hammond, the home is just blocks from a mega Baptist church, a federal and county courthouse and the city’s police department.
The foster mother would see the children a few more times when she stopped by the house last summer to drop off groceries. And for awhile nothing seemed amiss.
“The kids would come outside and play,” says Nicki Flick, a neighbor who lived next door. “They were a happy little bunch of kids.”
But Flick would see them less and less as the months grew colder. Then came the frigid night of January 8. A little after 10 p.m., a fire broke out at the family’s home. Flick says she wasn’t overly concerned because she believed no one was living there.
“Okay, it’s an empty house, what can I do?” she said. “I had no idea the family was still in there and that the three kids were trapped in the front bedroom.”
“We knew three people were outside. We also knew that there were three children still inside,” Hammond Deputy Chief Kevin Margraf told reporters on the scene that night. “By the time we had found the children we made a determination that they had all perished.”
7-month-old Jayden, along with Dasani, 4, and Alexia, 3, all died. The latter two were found clinging to each other.
“They were together. It’s something I’ll never forget,” Hammond Chief Fire Inspector Michael Opinker told reporters, fighting back tears.
The kids’ foster mother remembers when she first heard the news.
“So, I was in the driveway shoveling and my daughter comes running down, because she lives down the street and told me there was a fire. I just hit the ground,” the foster mom recalled. “I said ‘not my babies.’”
The children’s 27-year-old father Andre Young was credited with saving two of his other children from the home, and was hospitalized with severe burns. The children's mother, Michele Young, was reportedly not home when the fire broke out, something her family has disputed.
A relative of Andre Young spoke to reporters at the scene.
“He was a very good dad. She’s a good mom. And they just try really hard,” the relative said.
Fire officials confirm the house had no running water, no electricity and no heat. They say it was only afterward that they learned that space heaters attached to propane tanks were being used inside the home.
City of Hammond officials have faced scrutiny for not moving more quickly to inspect the home that most agree was in a deplorable condition. City officials have said they were always turned away by landlords and had trouble finding the actual property owner. At the time of the fire, city officials say they didn’t know anyone was actually living in the dwelling.
Others, like the foster mother, are questioning the role of Indiana’s Department of Child Services (DCS). For instance, how could DCS allow the children to return to a home with no utilities?
DCS Director Mary Beth Bonaventura says she wonders the same thing.
“I can tell you we ordered an investigation as this agency to find out if we dropped the ball, where we dropped the ball, to make sure that it never happens again," Bonaventura told WBEZ in an exclusive interview at her office in Indianapolis.
A little more than a year ago, Bonaventura took over as head of DCS at the urging of Indiana’s Governor Mike Pence.
At the time, many viewed DCS as a troubled agency plagued by low pay, high staff turnover and long-delayed investigations into child abuse and deaths.
Before that, Bonaventura served as the main juvenile judge in Lake County for 31 years. The same court that oversaw the case of Dasani and Alexia.
Even though juvenile court records are sealed, Bonaventura shared some information about the case of the children when they were in foster care.
“When those children were in court with the magistrate, anybody who had contact with those children appeared in court, and testified and were in agreement that the children go home. So, we’re talking about service providers, were talking about CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) we're talking about the families, we’re talking about our own agency,” Bonaventura said. “And so at that moment in time, the parties had completed at least enough of the case plan to have the court feel that it was safe enough for the children to go home.”
Bonaventura says the magistrate judge in the case, Glenn Commons, had to follow the law.
“I can tell you that he’s a really good magistrate and he listened to the evidence and the evidence was that the children should be returned home,” Bonaventura said. “And, if we are going to follow what the laws in the state of Indiana are, which is that we reunite families after we provide services to them, then that’s what the court has to do.”
Bonaventura also suggested that so-called wardship was dismissed during the hearing, meaning DCS no longer had standing to continue tracking the children upon their return to the family.
“Once wardship is dismissed then DCS doesn’t go back out there. The only reason DCS would ever go back out there if wardship wasn’t dismissed and then we are supposed to see children every 30 days,” Bonaventura said.
WBEZ reached out to Lake Superior Court Juvenile Division Magistrate Glenn Commons for comment, but he declined citing Indiana law.
However, Bonaventura says Commons reached out to her following the tragic fire.
“Shortly after the children died, he sent me an email, or a text, just telling me that he was going to review the record to make sure that he did what he was supposed to do,” Bonaventura said. “I guess as kind of an emotional response he felt like he wanted to tell me. I’ve know Glenn, or Magistrate Commons, for 25 years.”
But Bonaventura suggests that Andre and Michele Young were not truthful when they went before the court to get their children back.
“Obviously, it seems like those people lied to the court, they lied as to what their situation was because on the day that they were in court, everything was in order and months later the kids were dead and they had no electricity,” Bonaventura said.
Andre Young has since been released from the hospital, and WBEZ repeatedly reached out to him and Michele Young. The couple’s attorney, Timothy Tyler of Chicago, said the family would not have any comment. (Editor's Note: After our story was published, Andre Young decided to add a comment below.)
Several parts of the system — from the landlord to city inspectors to the utility company (NIPSCO) — have been criticized for failing to prevent the kids’ deaths. The foster mom says the Department of Children Services also needs to be held accountable.
“DCS should be responsible for not following up on the house and making sure that the day they took them out of my house, where they had NIPSCO and TV and food and water and clean clothes and lots of love, that they weren’t placed where they had nothing,” she said.
But Bonaventura, the head of DCS, says ultimately it comes back to the parents.
“This was a father and mother who barricaded those children in that house. At some point, when are they responsible? Those people failed those children, first and foremost. Let’s not forget that,” Bonaventura said. “That’s just human nature. We want to blame somebody. Three kids are dead. It’s your worst nightmare. We want to blame somebody and I’ll take some of the blame. Can we do better? We can always do better. But to me the blame lies with that mother and that father.”
According to published reports, a grandmother of the two surviving children is seeking custody of the children, who are said to be living in foster care.
Meanwhile, the house at 644 Sibley Street in Hammond still has teddy bears and candles out front to honor the memory of the three children who died.
Pretty soon memories are all that will be left. The city says the house is scheduled for demolition.
“I still cry over it,” says the foster mom. “My grown children are telling me it’s going to be okay but it’s never going to be okay.”