Who’s to Blame When Ten Kids Die in a Fire?

Friends pay tribute to 11-year-old Xavier, nickname Wedos. Photo: Stan Hister.

We’d all be human if we could

– Bertolt Brecht

Children aren’t doing well in America these days. The most obvious example is the Trump administration’s brutal policy of separating immigrant parents from children at the US-Mexico border but there are many far less well publicized instances of neglect or worse.

When I was in Chicago last month there was a horrifying fire in a mostly Mexican neighborhood on the city’s west side. The first reports had it that 6 kids and two adults had died, and two other kids were in critical condition in hospital. Within days the two kids in hospital died.

And then it turned out that the two adults were actually teens, 15 and 16 years old. Because their bodies were covered in soot and because of their size relative to the other kids, they’d been mistaken for adults. No doubt there was also the assumption that there must have been some adults around. But there weren’t.

This was the worst fire fatality in Chicago in over a decade, and the most children to die in a fire since 1958.

No one lived on the main floor of the house, which was boarded up. One family lived in the back, in a two bedroom apartment in what’s known as a carriage house. All but one of the kids were related, as siblings or cousins. They were all together for a sleepover. The youngest was a three month old baby.

The building had a long string of safety code violations. Early reports were that there were no smoke alarms. But the landlord insisted that he had installed a smoke detector, and eventually one was found, but it had no battery in it. It was the tenant’s responsibility to replace the battery. Had it been working, which is to say had the kids not been asleep (the fire broke out at 3 am), they could easily have gotten out alive. By the time the fire department showed up, after a neighbor reported seeing flames, the fire had been going on for 45 minutes. The blaze was so intense that it spread to two neighboring buildings, which had to be evacuated.

Ariel, who had just turned five. Photo: Stan Hister.

Bad landlord, lax enforcement by the city, and then tragedy strikes–it’s a familiar story. But it isn’t as simple as that. Actually the enforcement by the city wasn’t that lax – the last inspection had been in June, though it had only been a partial one since the inspectors were denied access. The trouble goes a lot deeper.

For one thing, as the local alderman, George Cardenas, explained, even if the city shuts a place like this down, it just creates a new problem, “because, then, where do the people go?” Where indeed! This house was a tenement, like many such houses on the west and south sides, the city’s nether regions where minorities (segregation in Chicago is deeply entrenched) and the working poor dwell.

For a family with no money, being forced to leave one tenement for safety violations only means pitching up in yet another tenement, which would likely be just as much of a fire trap. For politicians like Cardenas there are no other options, and so the approach is to ‘do what you can’. Cardenas says he’s been working for years with the landlord to try to improve the property, which may well be true, but in that case it only goes to show what everyone already knows – that bandaids aren’t much good at preventing disaster.

New public housing? Breaking or even loosening the stranglehold that real estate money has on every major American city? No one talks about this, certainly no one in power. When the Chicago Sun-Times ran an editorial which listed “11 weighty questions” that needed to be answered because of the fire, not one of them had to do with the state of the housing market in the city.

Then there are the families. The kids who died were from four families – or rather from four mothers. No fathers were mentioned in the news reports (not until, that is, mention of one father came up in relation to a fight that broke out at the funeral for six of the kids a week after the fire).

Yolanda Ayala lost 5 kids, including the baby. It was her house where the fire happened. Her sister-in-law Priscilla Cobos lost 3 kids. Yolanda’s sister Leticia Reyes lost one child, as did Yolanda’s friend Sonya Carrillo.

We know quite a bit about Ayala because days after the fire the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) took the “extremely unusual” step of releasing information from her files in what was clearly a move to cover their rear end. The other mothers were similarly ‘outed’, though it’s Ayala’s file that was the most newsworthy.

It turns out that she has notched up 21 child welfare investigations. It also turns out that 19 of these investigations were deemed ”unfounded”, which means DCFS couldn’t find credible evidence of child abuse or neglect. This would seem an exercise in bureaucratic wheel-spinning that is of surreal proportions.

There’s no doubt in Charles Golbert’s mind what happened. He’s the Cook County Public Guardian whose job is to act as legal counsel for abused and neglected kids. “In recent years DCFS has had a number of cases where they’ve investigated and ‘unfounded’ a case and the child later dies.” Golbert believes that the sheer number of investigations in this case, irrespective of the fact that almost all were “unfounded”, should have led to some action. “You would still want to put a set of eyes on the kids and provide services for the family.”

That’s a telling phrase–“put a set of eyes on the kids”. As is the term “unfounded” which echoes through these reports. You get a sense that these kids were “unfounded” in a rather different sense, that for all the investigating on file, their actual predicament was invisible to the powers-that-be, until they were dead.

Then there is Ayala’s criminal record: 5 theft convictions, another for welfare fraud as well as a drug conviction. There are further details about two of the theft convictions. In 2014 “she was charged with shoplifting and contributing to the delinquency of two minors in her care when they helped her steal $854 in merchandise from a Walgreens” in a Chicago suburb, according to the Sun-Times. And a year later “she was charged with the same crimes when one of the minors in the 2014 theft helped her steal $154 in merchandise from a Walmart.”

In both cases Ayala pleaded guilty to shoplifting and got probation. The contributing to delinquency charges were dropped–or to put this another way, they too were “unfounded”. DCFS also investigated Ayala in 2015 after her “16-year-old daughter took a 7 month-old relative to a mall in Lombard and used the baby as a ‘pawn’ to steal merchandise, hiding the loot in a stroller.” Ayala, the daughter and the baby were later stopped in a car by police.

To add a bitter irony to this bleak tale, at the time of the fire Ayala was facing eviction for non-payment of rent.

It seems evident that Ayala had problems as a parent. In fairness, her absence the night of the fire could just have been terribly bad luck. And lots of people don’t replace the batteries on smoke detectors – you even wonder if she knew she had to do it. But those 21 investigations raise the suspicion of an ongoing pattern of neglect. And the shoplifting cases darken the picture considerably. Those incidents seem like a sad parody of what passes for normal family life. Helping mom do the shopping becomes instead a petty crime spree. It’s as if we are suddenly back in the world of Oliver Twist.

Makeshift memorial in front of the Chicago house where ten children died in a fire on the morning of Sunday, Aug. 26. Photo: Stan Hister.

So who’s to blame for the death of these kids?

The obvious suspects, barring some unexpected revelation, are the landlord and the mother. Reports will be written up that address the “weighty questions” about the fire, at least to the satisfaction of the city’s power brokers and plutocrats, and the mass media will ‘move on’. Should anyone go looking for something more on the topic, NBC’s hit series “Chicago Fire” is readily available, with its “high-octane drama”.

But will anything change? Again barring the unexpected, the answer is probably not much. Because blaming a hapless mother for the death of these kids is like blaming the sinking of the Titanic on the tip of the iceberg. And blaming one bad landlord does nothing to change the underlying economics that generates more bad landlords. If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes appalling social indifference to let the lives of so many kids be extinguished in circumstances that were totally preventable.

And that social indifference is evident not just in firetrap housing. Many families exist in a terrible state of disrepair, like the houses they live in. When life is an endless hustle for survival, children can’t be much more than afterthoughts, or occasionally (unwitting) accomplices. And then there’s the depressing truth that neglect and abuse breed more of the same, that all too often parents recycle the wounds that were inflicted on them.

Consider the world these kids lived in. Parents that couldn’t be depended on, a home that was an accident waiting to happen and a government bureaucracy churning out endless investigations that changed nothing. This was a loveless world. Not loveless for lack of expressions of love – there were plenty of those (candles, hearts and balloons) at the makeshift memorial on the street in front of the house where the fire happened, as there almost always are at such scenes of carnage. But loveless in the deeper sense of withholding from these kids what they needed to have half a chance at a life.