SPRINGFIELD (Capitol News Illinois) – Sophia Faye Davis loved to eat noodles. She slept with a stuffed hippo that made soothing sounds and reflected stars on her ceiling. She sang and danced as she pounded on the keys of her toy piano.
These are the memories of her only child that Cassy Needham clings to – not the final month of Sophia’s life that was filled with child abuse allegations, failed investigations, and ignored pleas for help that ended with a beating so severe the tiny, blonde, blue-eyed 19-month-old wouldn’t survive it.
Sophia died on Feb. 8.
Sophia’s father’s girlfriend Cierra Coker is charged in Logan County with first-degree murder and aggravated battery to a child, accused of beating the toddler to death.
But a month before she died, Needham reported her concerns that her baby was being abused to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. But DCFS did not intervene, Needham said. As of Friday, the investigation into those claims remains open.
On Jan. 2, Needham picked up her daughter from an overnight visit with the infant’s father and was shocked by the condition of her daughter.
Needham found scratches on her head, a black eye, cuts on her mouth, bruises on her face, and what appeared to be friction burns on her face. Sophia wasn’t moving her left arm so Needham took her to HSHS St. John’s Hospital in Springfield. It was broken.
“The doctor there told me they suspected child abuse and called DCFS,” Needham said.
An investigation was opened and a DCFS worker came to her house the next day and asked to see Sophia, Needham said. She also checked Needham’s home to ensure it was safe and Sophia had the essentials.
Another worker went to Sophia’s father’s home and spoke with the father and his girlfriend, Coker. It was relayed to Needham that Coker told the investigator that Sophia was injured accidentally by other children in the home.
“Her story kept changing, though. I was just very nervous about sending her back there,” Needham said.
The investigator told Needham that she was going to unfound the case, meaning they would find the allegations not credible. Sophia’s father was ready to see her again.
“I asked if we could put a safety plan in place, but DCFS told me that they were going to unfound the case,” Needham said.
Facing pressure from Sophia’s father to resume visitation, Needham agreed to let him take Sophia for the night on Feb. 5.
The next afternoon, Needham received a call from Coker, telling her that Sophia was having trouble breathing and bleeding from her mouth.
“I told her to call 911. I told her something was wrong,” Needham said.
Eventually, Needham reached out herself to get help for her daughter. Paramedics arrived at the apartment in Lincoln that Coker shared with Sophia’s father. Emergency medical technicians transferred the baby to the hospital in Lincoln, but due to her serious condition, she was airlifted to HSHS St. John’s Hospital in Springfield.
But it was too late, Needham said.
Sophia died on Feb. 8. An autopsy would find that she died as a result of a traumatic brain injury, due to blunt force injuries of the head.
The DCFS investigation into the abuse allegations remains open.
Sophia’s the third child in as many months to die after reports of abuse or neglect. DCFS Director Marc Smith has been held in contempt six times so far this year for failing put children under the state’s care in proper placements. A DCFS investigator was murdered when checking on the welfare of six children.
The legislature has held hearings, but reform doesn’t mean anything to Needham.
“None of this should have happened. I did everything I could to protect her and the system failed me,” Needham said.
Beth Hundsdorfer is a veteran investigative reporter who spent nearly 20 years at the Belleville News-Democrat, 13 of which were spent on the investigative beat. She also covered cops and courts.
Her investigative journalism included work on issues such as solitary confinement in the Illinois Department of Corrections, fatal flaws in the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services that resulted in the death of 53 children, discriminatory housing practices in the city of Belleville and dismal prosecution rates in sex crimes cases in southern Illinois.
Her resume includes two John Jay College Journalism awards for excellence in criminal justice, a National Headliners Grand Award, a George Polk Award and a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for local reporting among other accolades.
Prior to joining Capitol News Illinois in November 2021, she had a brief stint at St. Louis Public Radio, and she spent two years as the public information officer at the Illinois State Police, fielding news media inquiries on issues ranging from traffic crashes to policy and procedure.
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