D'Andre Howard left plenty of clues that he was on a dangerous path before he was accused of killing three members of a Hoffman Estates family, but state officials and outside agencies failed to act on those warnings, a new report concludes.
Howard's story highlights the need for reforms in the handling of state wards who are nearing their independence, the report by the inspector general of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services found.
Howard was a 20-year-old ward when he was accused of using a butcher knife to kill three members of the Engelhardt family -- Laura, 18, her father, Alan, 57, and her grandmother Marlene Gacek, 73 -- in 2009 after they interrupted an early morning argument he was having with his girlfriend, Laura's sister, Amanda Engelhardt. Howard, 23, is being held without bail in Cook County Jail awaiting trial.
Despite a pattern of drug use and sexually inappropriate and threatening behaviors, Howard had been moved into independent living, giving him more freedom.
"He shouldn't have been moved," said Denise Kane, the inspector general. "He was in violation of every rule there was. ... They thought he was aging out (of the child care system), so let's get him ready for independent living."
Kane called for tighter controls.
"If they had these in place, it would benefit many young adults and ensure better oversight," she said. "I can't say it would have stopped him ... but I think they could have at least ... gone back into court to see what more could be done."
DCFS spokesman Kendall Marlowe declined to address the specifics of Kane's report but said the agency is acting on her recommendations to improve coordination among caseworkers. One observer, though, says the problems of supervising older wards are likely to remain.
"We have struggled to force improvements in transitional and independent living programs for many years with only limited success," said Benjamin Wolf, associate legal director of the ACLU of Illinois. "We remain deeply troubled by the lives many of our clients live as they're aging out of the child welfare system. It's one of the reasons that finding children safe, permanent homes before they're adults is such a critical issue."
A summary of Kane's findings, released this month, were part of an annual report that looks into DCFS problem cases. It's a summary of the inspector general office's work to uncover wrongdoing and improve practices and training.
The report says Howard became a ward of the state at age 5 -- apparently taken from his mother after two half-brothers were born with drugs in their systems, according to records obtained by the Tribune -- and within two years displayed signs of rage and violence so severe that he spent time in a psychiatric hospital.
By 9, his behavior qualified him for services for sexually aggressive youth, and a DCFS coordinator specializing in such children was assigned to his case, the report states. But his unsettling conduct continued: He started getting arrested at 13 for offenses such as aggravated battery and drug possession; fathered a child at 15; and at 16 was arrested for criminal sexual assault of a female classmate. He was convicted as a juvenile and required to register as a sex offender for 10 years.
In 2007, Howard entered a residential treatment program at Mundelein-based Alternative Behavior Treatment Centers, which cares for juvenile sex offenders and other young people from traumatic backgrounds. The report says that shortly before his 18th birthday, Howard was transferred to the treatment center's less restrictive transitional living program, where his behavior again took a turn for the worse.
He tested positive for marijuana, threatened staff, was caught with alcohol and a switchblade, injured another young person in a fight and, in a move that got him suspended from his high school, sent classmates a nude video of himself, according to the inspector general case summary.
The report says the treatment center did not move him back into the more restrictive residential program but allowed him to stay in his apartment on the center's grounds, even though he regularly left without permission and was caught dealing drugs. Then, despite his lack of progress, the center asked DCFS to move him into independent living -- a step that would give him even more freedom.
Robin McGinnis, founder of the Mundelein center, said she didn't know whether her center asked to move Howard or whether it came at the request of DCFS.
But DCFS often pushes for older wards to move quickly toward independent living, she said, believing they need to be prepared for life's challenges before government supervision ends at age 21. Sometimes, she said, that means young people are moved before they're ready.
Marlowe, the DCFS spokesman, said state and federal laws require wards to be placed in the least restrictive setting.
After leaving the Mundelein treatment center, Howard was supervised by Kaleidoscope, a Chicago-based social service agency that provides housing, educational and job assistance to young people from age 18 to 21.