CHICAGO (CBS) -- Chicago police detectives have launched an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of 3-year-old Aaliyah Benka. The little girl had a successful heart transplant in 2018. Two years later, she died after suffering organ rejection. Her new heart failed.
As we reported in May, Aaliyah was a foster child. Her foster mother, Karen Castleberry, was supposed to give Aaliyah anti-rejection medicine to keep her new heart working.
After she died, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) investigated Aaliyah's death and then determined her foster mother, Karen Castleberry, failed "…to administer the child's medication to her." Castleberry was indicated by DCFS, or found responsible, for "Death By Neglect" and "Medical Neglect".
Chicago police have requested all the medical records related to Aaliyah's death which was originally ruled death by natural causes.
According to an investigator's report completed after Aaliyah's death, Castleberry denied failing to give Aaliyah her medicine.
Read the original story from May 23, 2023 below:
The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) is requesting that the Chicago Police Department re-open a criminal investigation into the death of 3-year-old Aaliyah Benka. DCFS indicated the little girl's foster mother was responsible for the child's death. But there have been no criminal charges.
Born with a bad heart, Aaliyah's life was difficult. She was just a year and a half old when she underwent a heart transplant. It should have been the beginning of a new, healthy, life. But Aaliyah needed more help. Her biological mom couldn't care for her and asked DCFS to find her daughter a safe home.
DCFS gave custody of Aaliyah to Karen Castleberry who was trained to take care of medically complex children. Castleberry had already fostered another child who had a transplant and needed the same anti-rejection medicine as Aaliyah, called tacrolimus.
A year and a half after moving in with Castleberry, Aaliyah's body started rejecting the new heart. Castleberry took her to Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago.
A report from the DCFS Office of the Inspector General says Aaliyah was hooked to machines for five days. But the damage to her heart was too much. Aaliyah died. She was just 3 years old.
The CBS 2 Investigators found records about her death in 2020 while digging into DCFS abuse and neglect data we obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. We then obtained other DCFS records and used FOIA to get Cook County Medical Examiner (ME) and Chicago Police Department (CPD) reports about Aaliyah's death.
Piecing together all the records, we found the cardiologist treating Aaliyah before her death was "alarmed" when she reviewed Aaliyah's blood work and saw a very low level of anti-rejection medication. Chicago Police and DCFS were called. A Medical Examiner report says the doctor suspected Castleberry neglected to give Aaliyah her anti-rejection medication.
The DCFS Inspector General's investigation found, "levels were nearly undetectable". And found Castleberry responsible for "failing to administer the child's medication to her." DCFS indicated her for "Death By Neglect" and "Medical Neglect."
The DCFS investigation also says, "The foster mother had not picked up the child's medication for the prior month of September despite several notifications from the pharmacy."
We tried to talk to Castleberry about the findings. She refused to answer most questions. Though when asked about not giving Aaliyah her medicine she said, "That's not true"."
The Medical Examiner's report says Castleberry denied failing to give Aaliyah her medicine.
A DCFS official says Castleberry did not appeal the findings and she surrendered her foster care license.
But our investigation raises questions about whether she should have even had her foster license at the time of Aaliyah's death in October of 2020.
A Chicago Police Department report from 2017, says Castleberry was charged with "domestic battery" for beating and injuring a different child. The report says she beat a 10-year-old girl with a belt causing a "black eye" and "multiple linear and buckle marks" on her back. The report says Castleberry admitted she, "struck the victim several times with the belt", because she, "lied about attending violin classes."
Court records show a motion to, "present proof of anger management," was filed. Then the charge was dropped.
DCFS also investigated Castleberry for those allegations under a classification it calls: "Cuts, Bruises, Welts, Abrasions and Oral Injuries." Despite Castleberry's arrest and the child's bruises, DCFS closed the investigation and classified it as "unfounded".
Charles Golbert is the Cook County Public Guardian. His office of attorneys represents foster children and advocates for them. We asked Golbert to review the abuse and neglect files involving Castleberry.
"It's sad for the children in this person's care," said Golbert.
He's concerned with how the 2017 arrest was handled by DCFS.
"Did they take this information and do a real proper risk assessment to see whether there should still be foster children in this home?" said Golbert. "So this raises a lot of serious red flags."
Another red flag involves another case involving Castleberry's treatment of Aaliyah.
Seven months before Aaliyah died, she was hospitalized for the flu. A DCFS report says Castleberry left the toddler alone in the hospital for three days. There was an attempt to remove Castleberry as Aaliyah's foster mother. A "Notice of Removal" was issued. But Castleberry appealed and DCFS allowed her to keep fostering Aaliyah.
"With everything that happened in this home, and all these red flags and everything prior, yeah there are a lot of red flags to say the least," said Golbert.
We've spent years investigating DCFS and obtained the department's abuse and neglect data, dating back to 2016. By analyzing it we. When a foster parent is accused of abuse or neglect the allegations .
Back in 2020, the Chicago Police Department also opened an investigation into Aaliyah's death. What happened to that investigation is unclear, except that it was closed. There were no criminal charges.
The Cook County Medical Examiner's Office ruled Aaliyah died of natural causes.
Now after our investigation, DCFS is requesting the Chicago Police Department re-open a criminal investigation into what happened to Aaliyah Benka. Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert also wants to see an investigation opened.
Statement from DCFS Communications Director Heather Tarczan:
"When the life of a child is cut tragically short, it is devastating on many levels. This is the case here, particularly when it appears that the adult that was supposed to care for this child did not. DCFS is continuing its efforts to seek justice by reaching out to the Chicago Police Department to offer assistance and request that it reopen this case."
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