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.
Kaleidoscope staff members were aware of some of his issues, the report says, but didn't know that in July 2008, just before entering their program, he was charged with battery after being accused of raping a woman in a motel room.
They did witness other troubling signals. Records show that on Christmas 2008, Howard checked himself into a psychiatric hospital after a suicide attempt but acted out so much that he was arrested. Once discharged, he refused outpatient treatment.
Confidential case documents obtained by the Tribune indicate that Howard would not allow Kaleidoscope to review the medical records from his hospitalization. The agency sought the intervention of DCFS legal staff but to no avail, the documents show.
In the two months before the slayings, the report says, Kaleidoscope staff saw that Howard showed signs of paranoia, and he admitted drinking and being involved with "street pharmacy" activities. His apartment was increasingly dirty and damaged, its walls perforated by BB pellets. The agency, though, allowed him to keep his BB gun, the report says.
"These behaviors in combination with his long history of violence indicated an urgent need for services," including, perhaps, a forced hospitalization, the report says. "The (Kaleidoscope) case manager expressed a benign acceptance of the behaviors rather than exercising proactive intervention."
Kaleidoscope Executive Director Thomas Finnegan declined to comment on the report's findings.
The report cites a lack of communication between the social service groups and DCFS employees, whom it faults for not seeking out information about Howard's behavior. It also said Howard's moves to less restrictive settings had been inadequately planned.
Kane recommended that DCFS become more aggressive about enforcing rules for older wards. They should be compelled to waive their privacy rights so that schools can tell DCFS when a ward has gotten into trouble or dropped out, she wrote. Wards should also be required to sign housing contracts that address the use of drugs, alcohol and firearms.
Shelly Engelhardt, who was injured and lost her husband, mother and daughter in the slayings, declined to speak about the report.
Her son Jeff Engelhardt, who was not at the home during the attack, said his family had been aware that Howard grew up as a ward of the state but did not know the extent of his troubled background. He said his parents tried to help Howard.
"If there's any possibility of learning something from this, or if (the inspector general's report) helps improve the system, that's a good thing," Engelhardt said.
Cook County Public Guardian Robert Harris, who acts as attorney for wards of the state, agreed with some of the report's conclusions. But Harris said he wouldn't support anything that would "short-circuit" the legal system by making it easier to send wards to mental hospitals against their will.
Wolf, the ACLU attorney, said the report makes common-sense suggestions but added that some older wards of the state are so damaged that it can be difficult to head off tragedy.
"The level of independence given for a young man this troubled was a bad mistake, but you can't say (the killings) could have been avoided," Wolf said. "These are tough cases. This is why people need families. For a system or court to try to intervene when someone is this troubled and at this age, it's awfully tough."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times