CHICAGO — The Department of Child and Family Services said it investigated one of the families involved in a Little Village fire, that killed 10 children, 21 times since 2004. The information from DCFS comes as the officials continue to investigate the cause of the fire, which they say is still undetermined, but not suspicious.
State officials said there were not only warning signs of neglect, but deafening alarm bells. Yolanda Ayala, who lost six of her 10 children in the fire, had been investigated by DCFS 21 times since 2004.
Some of the DCFS records have been expunged, but Ayala was investigated for “inadequate supervision” three times since March 2013, and four times in that same span for “substantial risk of physical injury.” In each case, the complaint was ruled “unfounded.”
In one of those cases in January 2015, “…after her then 16-year-old daughter took a 7-month-old relative to the mall and used the baby as a ‘pawn’ to steal merchandise. She hid merchandise in the stroller assuming no one would stop them with a baby. They were later stopped by police.”
The fire broke out at an apartment building on the 2200 block of South Sacramento Avenue on Sunday around 4 a.m. No adults were home at the time when the fire broke out.
The children killed ranged in ages from 3 months to 16 years old. Ariel Garcia, 5, Xavier Contreras, 11, Nathan Contreras, 13, Cesar Contreras, 14, Adrian Hernandez, 14, and Gialanni Angela Ayala, 5, were identified as victims.
Firefighters are looking into the building, which had a long history of code violations. The building’s owner had been trying to evict Ayala, who rented the unit.
On July 20, the owner of the coach house, Merced Gutierrez filed a lawsuit to evict Ayala and retake possession of the property. Sources said there were many complaints from neighbors regarding gang activity at the house and possibly drugs being sold there.
Earlier this week, fire officials ruled out electrical as the cause of the fire, but the Office of Fire Investigations is working with the Chicago Police Department’s Arson Unit and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which occasionally hires outside structural or mechanical engineers to investigate.
Although the cause is currently undetermined, the OFI is waiting for an engineering analysis on an electrical device. The device is not related to two electrical code violations the building owner was cited for in June. One was for grounding in front of the building and one for an illegal cord going from the front building to the coach house. There were also no working smoke detectors in the home.
A GoFundMe was set up to help the family cover burial costs.
There has been a vigil held where the fire happened every night since Sunday. Neighbors are trying to show support, but also trying to find the right words.
“Are there words? There are no words. These are children. They’re gone, man. I saw them every day for a year,” Henry Koral, a neighbor, said. “I’m not saying some of them weren’t rough kids, we had our moments, but they were just kids, y’know?”
Nine of the children were cousins, one was a close friend. Three families were involved in the fire, and all but one had prior DCFS contact. The agency said, “none of these individual reports, by itself, rose to the level of our removing children from their parents.”