Baby Matthew Elkins didn't survive even two months in a house so filled with trash that most of his eight siblings and parents slept on the same grimy mattress. He suffocated on that mattress Jan. 31.

Sometime in the night

A baby dies amid squalor, a family’s secret is revealed

When Tim Elkins heard a police battering ram smash against his front door, he hid with his kids under a blanket.

Baby Matthew died sometime in the night. Tim knew that when the deputies broke through they would find out the Elkins family secret. It would mean the end of them as a family.

He whispered to his 5-year-old daughter, the favorite of his nine children.

“I won’t let them in.”

The door finally splintered. Tim heard voices in the foyer below, footsteps on the stairs.

A single flashlight beam swept across Tim and six of his small children, who lay in a tangle of blankets on a filthy mattress.

Throughout the home, just feet away from the mattress in every direction, lay more than a year’s accumulation of animal waste and hundreds of plastic trash bags filled with rotting garbage. In rooms where the Elkins kids should have played, dreamed and finished their homework, rats chewed and hordes of bugs crawled nightly to the ceiling for warmth.

Tim put his hands up.

Police were dumbfounded by the squalor, the stench and the endless garbage. And now a baby was dead. It was something society could not ignore. Police said someone had to pay.

Tim and Amy Elkins, both 35, were the parents. The condition of that house in New Douglas, IL, was their responsibility. Wasn’t raising children in a home infested with vermin, crawling with roaches, a home where it would be disgusting to walk barefoot or play on the floor, a crime? That’s what police asked.

But these children told social workers they loved their parents and each other. However dysfunctional, on the night 2-month-old baby Matthew died, they were still a family. Criminal charges would change that.

“Maybe we didn’t try hard enough. Maybe we just got lazy,” Tim said later that morning during a police interview.

He told a story of chronic misfortune. He couldn’t hold a job. He was arrested for drunken driving and lost his driver’s license. There was never enough money. So many children with so many needs.

The family got by on Tim’s meager unemployment checks, food stamps, welfare and handouts from local food pantries, clothes from church closets, Christmas dinners left by strangers.

In his frustration, police say Tim got drunk and hit his wife. He punched holes in the walls. And all the while the garbage heaps grew and grew.

Tim insisted the family could not afford trash removal, which is about $18 to $20 a month. He refused to haul garbage to a neighbor who offered his curb for pickup without charge. He refused to ask for help from his mother-in-law who lived right across the street. Or from his sister-in-law and her husband who were their next nearest neighbors.

Trash was the family secret. Tim demanded it stay that way.

As the trash piles filled the house, Illinois Department of Children and Family Service reports revealed that the family had nearly disintegrated, driven to chaos by Tim’s control, rules and insistence on isolation. And yet, in a way that he probably didn’t realize, Tim was essential to and loved by his children and Amy. Despite the unyielding filth and emotional drain of daily survival, his kids loved him. They said so. In that respect, he was a dad.

But this moment, on that grimy mattress on an icy morning on the last day of January 2017, facing police, surrounded by heaps of garbage that could not be explained away, was everything Tim and Amy had feared. Their secret was out. An ambulance was on its way. They would surely lose their kids.

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Trash filled the one bedroom shared by the Elkins family. Animal waste was throughout the house.

Wall of resistance

It’s rare that a death like Matthew’s results in criminal charges.

Sleeping parents sometimes roll over on their small babies, smothering them. There are seldom prosecutions. It is viewed as an accident, not murder.

An autopsy found no injuries to Matthew. The coroner ruled he died of positional asphyxia, an accidental death. The hospital-issued car seat where Amy placed her baby for his protection when he slept on the crowded mattress had somehow overturned, trapping him face down. At only 2 months old, Matthew wasn’t strong enough to lift his head for air, leaving him to suffocate.

But the conditions of the house, police said, made his death a crime — involuntary manslaughter of Matthew and endangering the lives of their other children. Tim and Amy were taken to the Madison County Jail.

In September, after seven months in the county lockup, Tim pleaded guilty and received a six-year prison sentence. Amy’s case is pending.

Stunned deputies videotaped the interior of the house. The videos showed discarded soda and pork and beans cans. Empty boxes of macaroni and cheese littered the floor.

Walls were stained with food, dotted with roach feces and marked with children’s scribbling. Bugs inhabited the fridge. Human excrement soiled the toilet. Waste water covered the bathroom floor. Sticky strips blackened with flies hung from the ceiling. And everywhere, the movement of roaches.

Bags and bags of garbage reached within feet of ceilings. Above the trash heaps, a sliver of wall emerged in bedrooms — one pastel pink and one baby blue.

In the boys’ room, just below the light switch, jagged holes in the drywall scratched away by small hands revealed wood studs.

 
Bugs line the panes of glass in the kitchen window.

In the pink room a computer and monitor sat on a desk. Movie posters adorned a wall. Compact discs of boy bands lay on a shelf. Video games were stacked in the closet.

There was the ever-present garbage, clutter and stench, but this room was where the two oldest Elkins girls tried to carve out a teen oasis. Inexplicably, a chain saw sat in the corner.

People in the village knew about the Elkinses. Windows on the two-story blue house on Main Street were broken out. Trash in the yard hinted at what was inside. A dead kitten, its remains mummified, lay near the front door.

Teachers, neighbors, church members, child protection investigators and social workers tried to help the family. But each time they were thwarted by Tim and Amy, who again and again kept the family isolated, other than allowing the children to go to school.

Despite the overwhelming filth and multiple investigations by DCFS, the Elkins children remained in the family home. George Sheldon, the department’s executive director at the time Matthew died, had long wrestled with the question of whether it was best to remove children from a dirty home or leave the family intact.

“Until you can convince me that foster care is good for a child, we should do everything we can to keep that child with the family,” Sheldon said. “ … You shouldn’t take a child out of home just because it’s dirty.”

Filling houses with children, trash

 
The Elkins family did it before, allowing a house to fill with their own waste. Police officers who thought they'd seen everything were appalled, sickened.

‘Absolutely horrific’

When the door broke open that morning, it was sheriff’s Deputy Eric Schellhardt who stood at the Elkins’ threshold. He had heard the radio call about an infant in distress. He had seen the tiny, lifeless Matthew placed in the back of an ambulance. Schellhardt couldn’t understand why this man wouldn’t come to the door or respond to their calls.

The smell from inside the house provided the answer. What parent would want anyone to know children actually lived in this mess?

Madison County Sheriff John Lakin said: “It was absolutely horrific.”

The stench of decay, sewage, rotting food, dirty diapers, cigarettes, stale beer and sour milk hit Schellhardt and his fellow officers. One cop staggered, then vomited.

Schellhardt stared at steps leading to the living room area of the split-level home. They were covered with animal feces and trash stuck on top of a kind of orange ooze. He didn’t want to go in. He didn’t want to move.

But he knew the baby’s father was somewhere inside. He didn’t know how Matthew died. And there were the other kids.

Into the darkness, he shouted “sheriff’s office!” and climbed the stairway. His flashlight beam found Elkins on the mattress, hands up. The wide-eyed children were silent. Minutes earlier, Amy had fled across the street, a lifeless Matthew in her arms.

“Timothy attempted to act surprised by my presence,” Schellhardt later wrote in his report.

He also wrote at length about the shocking condition of the home; the bedrooms and living areas that had been filled to nearly the ceiling with trash bags and garbage; animal waste and urine fouling every room.

But it was when Schellhardt shined his flashlight upward directly over the mattress that he made a chilling discovery. Bugs covered the ceiling.

He handcuffed Elkins and put him in the back of his squad car. The kids watched from their grandma’s front window across the street where they had been taken by other officers.

Schellhardt drove Elkins the 26 miles to Edwardsville where he was booked on felony and misdemeanor charges. After they arrived and Tim was locked up, Schellhardt headed home for a shower and a clean uniform and boots, then finished his shift.

Tim’s favorite, the little girl who heard her dad vow to defy the cops, knew all about the bugs.

The bugs were there before the trash, the girl said. Roaches and spiders brought it, she explained during an interview with police. That’s how it got into all of the rooms.

“The roaches crawl on you and make you feel funny,” she said. “The spiders bite you. Poison ones kill you. Dad almost got bit by one. He was lucky he had his coat on.”

Like all the Elkins children, she was interviewed at the Madison County Child Advocacy Center in Wood River.

Lt. Carole Presson, a sheriff’s detective, attended those interviews, just as she had with hundreds of abused and neglected children. She sat with a social worker as each of the Elkins children talked about their home and family. None of the younger children spoke of the filth and garbage unless asked.

Jeff Connor, Presson’s boss, worked for the Granite City Police Department for decades before becoming Madison County’s chief deputy. He keeps a digital scrapbook of the dirty homes he’s seen in his career.

There was no excuse for the state of the Elkins home, Connor said. But he was not surprised that the children still loved their parents.

“I think there’s a natural love for your parents, and once again, this is the way they knew to live. If you took a child that was 12 years old that was never raised with them and put them into that situation, they’re going to have all kinds of questions and concerns,” Connor said.

“But these children, this was an everyday event for them. You just get molded into that. This is the way I am supposed to live.”

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Main bathroom of the Elkinses' family home in New Douglas was unusable because it was filled with trash.

A report to a DCFS supervisor stated that one girl, 11, “Feels like her house is fine but she doesn’t really like living there because it’s messy and she doesn’t have her own room so it’s not private and she doesn’t have a room to put her stuff.”

Presson, the sheriff’s detective, called the 8-year-old Elkins girl a “pistol.” She leaned across the table at her interview and whispered to Presson that their house was “illegal,” but the kids “weren’t allowed to talk about it.”

She told Presson she woke that morning and noticed Matthew’s face was white. She realized he wasn’t breathing and tried to blow air into his mouth.

Her 7-year-old brother was candid. He told Presson: “The house was trashed. There was trash everywhere.” He also said, “Dad drank beer.” Police found a heap of beer cans in the basement where Tim watched movies with his kids.

As for the baby’s death, he said, “Dad wasn’t crying.”

The youngest child to be interviewed, a 4-year-old boy, was carried into the interview room by his sister. He didn’t speak at all. The boy hid behind a door in the interview room.

The oldest, a 15-year-old girl, acted as a mother to the younger kids. She was an honor student who played the clarinet in her high school band. The little mother told a social worker that she “tries to ignore what happened so she doesn’t cry.”

Her sister, 14, hauled the kids’ laundry to her grandmother’s house. She was having trouble at school and was sent to live with her aunt and uncle near Chicago just a few weeks before Matthew’s death. She was not interviewed that morning.

The three older girls tried to clean, but the task became overwhelming, the 11-year-old girl told the interviewer.

The growing piles of trash had crept inward, devouring space. The family was forced to retreat to a small section of the living room that held the queen-sized mattress. And yet, the Elkins kids kept about their lives — school, daily visits to Grandma’s, errands with their parents, swing set time, playing with the family dog and a mother cat and her kittens.

They couldn’t take showers at home. They couldn’t do laundry. The trash heaps didn’t leave room for that. It was like the horror movie “The Blob.”

But this was real. Garbage was a danger to the family. Unlike a movie monster, it was there every morning.

The Elkins kids seemed to accept that the monster lived only in their house. Their father told them if they kept it secret, the family could stay together. If it got out to neighbors or their school friends, they would be taken away.

During an interview with the 5-year-old girl at the advocacy center, the girl drew a simple picture. It was supposed to reflect how she felt. It showed a girl’s smiling face with big eyes and long lashes. She seemed a happy kid, except she said she would miss Matthew.

Where did you sleep last night, the social worker asked?

She took a crayon and on paper drew a rectangle with marks depicting her sleeping between her father and her 7-year-old brother. She put Baby Matthew near her mother.

“I like to be near my dad because I like him, because I love him,” she said.

But during the interview, the child felt compelled to divulge an image — something during the night that she had to tell them.

“The baby was screaming and crying like somebody murdered him.”

Amy slept so soundly that when the children tried to rouse her, they were often met with resistant mumbling before she fell back to sleep. The kids tried slaps to her face, a splash of cold water. It took a lot to wake their mother, the kids said.

The kindergartener didn’t have the words to explain what had actually happened to Matthew, but she said that maybe a family cat did something bad. When questioned further, all she really saw was the tail of the cat. It was moving across Matthew’s face.

“I closed my eyes, then I opened them. I saw Matthew and the black tail,” the girl said. “Maybe the cat scratched him on his leg or head and that’s why he died.”

 
Police find the Elkins children on the grimy bed where baby Matthew died in his car seat, at left.

A Xanax and a prayer

Just a few months after she graduated from Highland High School, Amy married Tim, who was from nearby Worden. The wedding was on Oct. 7, 2000. The minister of the New Douglas Baptist Church performed the ceremony.

Though neither came from a home with both parents, Amy made a promise that day that they would stay together. They would make a life together.

“Tim is a control freak,” his mother-in-law would later tell police. “She does what she’s told. He’s the boss.”

But there was no doubt Amy loved Tim.

“She loves him dearly,” Mary Rosenthal said.

Despite Tim’s control issues and his dislike for Amy’s family, they became a team.

The couple had a car. And friends. They rented a home. Both worked, Tim at a factory, Amy at a convenience store. And then the children came, three girls in four years.

But by 2006, the family’s future had dimmed. Tim became bitter and mean-spirited, said Joshua Bailey, a former neighbor and Amy’s longtime friend.

On a sweltering afternoon this past August, Bailey drove a riding mower on the streets of the tiny Macoupin County town of Fidelity, where he had moved. Outside their mobile home, his wife and several children gathered under a shade tree. “Dad’s out mowing,” a teenage boy told visitors. Bailey wasn’t hard to find.

A heavy-set man, his brow sweaty, Bailey was wary of the strangers. “Fake news,” he quipped. He didn’t want his name used but then relented. He knew Tim. But he had nothing good to say about him.

“Tim was … like a cult leader,” Bailey said. “He ran his family with an iron fist.”

As for Amy, “I’ve known her for more than 10 years. She’s a good girl. A really good person.”

There had been a feud between Bailey and Tim. Animosity grew when Tim installed surveillance cameras on the front porch of the Elkins home on Main Street in New Douglas and aimed them at the nearby Bailey house when they, too, lived in New Douglas.

Bailey resented the cameras and recalled a day when Tim and two male acquaintances showed up and threatened him.

“They got to drinking and came up in front of my home and said they were going to get me.” Bailey warned them: “You come any further, you’re making a mistake.”

More angry words followed, corroborated in a Sheriff’s Department report. There were no arrests.

As for the feud, Bailey said, “I really don’t know what started it.”

The Bailey and Elkins kids played together, but only when outside or at the Baileys. The Elkins house was forbidden territory.

Bailey’s wife, Markela, remembered an incident that in retrospect she found telling. Amy had asked to borrow some ketchup. Markela Bailey took a bottle over to her house and knocked. The door opened just a few inches and a hand appeared, grasped the ketchup, and disappeared.

Markela Bailey heard her neighbor say “thank you” but never saw her face.

How can children live like that?

 
Police, experts and the Elkins family try to explain how mental illness and alcoholism combined to fill their houses with trash, and why it was allowed to continue.

The Blob returns

Presson, the sheriff’s detective, understood the sleepless nights and the fatigue that accompanied raising a family. The investigator was herself a mother. And Amy had nine children.

At 8:35 a.m., a few hours after her baby left in an ambulance, never to return, Amy sat nervously with Presson in a police interview room.

Any other morning, Amy would be sitting at her mother Mary Rosenthal’s kitchen table, drinking coffee with a pack of cigarettes and an ashtray nearby.

Presson offered coffee and a Miranda warning. Amy agreed to be recorded during the interview. Presson asked about Matthew, the other kids, the details of their lives.

Her last pregnancy had gone unnoticed by the couple and her family, Amy said. After a boy was born in 2012, she had a surgery that she believed rendered her unable to carry a baby to term. In early December, she felt the familiar pains and realized she was in labor.

She called her mother, who was working the overnight shift and said she needed a ride to the hospital. Right away.

Amy hadn’t received prenatal care. She was a heavy smoker. And yet, Matthew appeared healthy with the usual number of fingers and toes.

It was just a few weeks before Christmas when Amy brought her baby home. There were no gifts. No baby’s room. No bassinet.

In fact, the only possession that might be said to have belonged to the newly named Matthew James Elkins was a hospital-issued car seat. It was there that he slept.

Amy told Presson about a time, just a few years earlier, when with the help of a determined state child welfare worker, Amy Elkins and her daughters had managed to clean the house. The Blob was beaten down. For about a year.

But Tim remained adamant. They could not afford to catch up on the bill for garbage removal. When the bags piled up in the back yard, neighbors complained. Trash bags were flung into rooms. The Blob returned.

Tim began to drink heavily, court records showed. A bartender banned him from The Dawg Haus, the only bar in New Douglas, just down the street from where the family lived.

One night about a year before Matthew was born, Tim got drunk and began harassing a woman there, pestering her to dance. The bartender told police she ordered him to leave.

The next night, the bartender found her car’s front tire slashed. Police saw Tim on a video surveillance tape vandalizing the vehicle, and he was arrested on a misdemeanor.

A few weeks later, Tim knocked on a 24-year-old neighbor’s door in the middle of the night. He stood there, knocking, for at least 10 minutes, she told a deputy.

Finally, she opened the door enough to see Tim, a bicycle by his side. He asked her how to get to the local tavern. She pointed, then called the Sheriff’s Department.

Tim lost his factory job after a drunken driving crash in Macoupin County in September 2014 that injured two people in another car. He fled the scene in the family car, but police captured him and charged him with two felonies. Tim was jailed and forced to divert what little money the family had for a lawyer. The cases are still pending.

Amy told Presson that after the drunken driving charges her husband just gave up, and did little except play video games, drink beer in the basement and guard against outsiders. When a DCFS social worker would come to the door, Tim Elkins left the house or went to bed or the basement.

DCFS continued to show up, each time telling Amy she must clean up the house. Pressure built on both parents.

Tim faced a court case that seemed sure to end in a prison sentence. He had no job and nine kids. He just wanted to hide. Amy worried that DCFS workers would lose patience because of the filth and her kids would be sent away.

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Tim Elkins and the kids shared movie time as Elkins drank 10 to 12 beers the night of Baby Matthew’s death.
Provided

‘Solomon-like decisions’

In cases like the Elkins family, DCFS is required to protect the children. Many times they quietly succeed. When they fail, the case often results in sensational headlines.

In April, just a few months after Matthew Elkins’ death, 17-month-old Semaj Crosby was found dead, her body hidden under a couch in a filthy home in Joliet Township near Chicago. Her death has been ruled a homicide.

The tabloid Daily Mail in Great Britain headlined the Semaj story: “House of Horrors.” The newspaper published police photographs of the squalid house.

A Chicago Tribune columnist, Dahleen Glanton, wrote that poverty contributed to the little girl’s death.

Glanton lamented the condition of the home, but asked in her column, “Where else could they have gone? How many children have we seen with their mothers huddled under blankets in doorways along The Magnificent Mile?”

And, like the death in New Douglas, the condition of the home became the paramount issue.

For Sheldon, the former head of DCFS, who faced mounting criticism for his policy of keeping families together, the decision to remove a child could be compared to the ancient story of two mothers who laid claim to a single baby.

“We ask investigators to go into a home and make these Solomon-like decisions,” Sheldon said. “If we remove a child unnecessarily, we destroy a family; if we fail to remove a child when needed, we harm a child. ... There is a distinction between a dirty home and one where a child’s safety cannot be guaranteed. But that can be difficult to discern.”

Tim Elkins didn’t offer any excuses to the sheriff’s detective and a lieutenant, both fathers, who questioned him.

Yes, he was the leader of his large family. Yes, he should have been the breadwinner. Yes, he should have set an example for his children.

But the truth was miserable. He hadn’t worked in a year. His home was uninhabitable. His kids looked to his mother-in-law for food, showers and laundry. He didn’t even know what day Matthew was born.

“Tim is not sure of the birthday, but believes it was around Christmas,” a detective wrote in his report.

Matthew’s birthday was Dec. 5, 2016.

The police video showed a soft-spoken Tim, who didn’t flinch from the question of how much he drank at night. He readily answered that it was often 10 to 12 beers, discarded on a pile in the basement. There was no need for Good Cop, Bad Cop.

But there was something the cops didn’t know. Something that had driven Tim from the mattress before police showed up, before he heard the pounding and shouting, before he made that promise to his little girl to keep the world on the other side of the front door.

After Amy screamed and fled with Matthew to her mother’s house across the street, Tim left his kids. He slipped out the back door, down the porch steps and into the family car where he kept a bottle of the prescription anti-anxiety drug Xanax.

He told his interrogators he swallowed a pill about 10 minutes before the first officers arrived in New Douglas, then turned to face what he and his wife had always dreaded. The world was about to breach his defenses. Outsiders would find The Blob. Tim quickly returned to the mattress and his children. He laid back down, he said, to await the inevitable and prayed for Matthew.

 

The awful power

Some people believe destiny begins the moment they are placed in their mother’s arms. If that’s true, Matthew Elkins’ destiny began in the maternity ward of Anderson Hospital in Maryville.

Amy received her swaddled baby boy with her mother, Mary Rosenthal, beside her. Though Matthew was Amy’s ninth child, it was the first time Rosenthal had been present for the birth of one of her grandchildren.

“It was a very bonding thing for me and Amy,” Rosenthal would later tell Presson. “I got to be there to watch him be born.”

There were no hospital photos taken of baby Matthew. A person close to the family said there were no pictures at all.

Amy and Tim brought Matthew home strapped in the car seat. It had been four years since there had been a newborn in the Elkins house.

By the time Matthew arrived in December 2016, Amy filled the role of the family problem-solver. She handled food shortages, unpaid bills and everything from a child’s toothache to consoling her son when he told her his pre-school teacher said he smelled and then sprayed him with Febreze.

In 2009, DCFS became heavily involved with the family after neighbors complained the then five children were neglected. On Feb. 25, a DCFS worker came to where the Elkins family lived in a rented house on Garner Street in New Douglas.

A 20-month-old boy, who wore only a diaper, opened the door. Feces covered his face, arms and hands. The social worker spotted his sister, then 3, standing behind him, naked. Asked where their mother was, the children inexplicably pointed to a nearby field.

“Reporter observed the residence to be filthy with dog feces everywhere,” the social worker wrote.

Ten minutes later, Amy finally came to the door, confused and groggy, with her 4-month-old daughter in her arms. By this time, the social worker had called the Sheriff’s Department.

Mary Rosenthal, Amy’s mother, also showed up. Minutes later, Tim arrived home from work. They told the DCFS worker that Amy had been acting strangely but they didn’t know why.

The children were sent to their grandmother’s. The parents were told to clean up the house. Amy agreed to get rid of her dog, a Labrador retriever with seven puppies.

Amy was left to deal with regular visits from DCFS workers who, while on a mission to protect kids, remained a constant threat. They held the awful power to send her children away.

Nearly three months later, on May 18, 2009, another social worker showed up at the Garner Street house accompanied by two deputies. Amy was pregnant for the sixth time.

If anything, the situation appeared to be worse. The children weren’t regularly attending school. The social worker found two jars of baby food in a cabinet, a glass of milk in the refrigerator and a half a bag of frozen chicken sticks in the freezer to feed a family of seven.

Carpets were soaked in animal urine and covered with dog feces. Water stood in the laundry room. The clothes washer was broken. Dirty dishes were scattered throughout the kitchen. The car was out of gas. The caseworker put it all in her report.

This time, DCFS officially determined that Tim and Amy had neglected their kids. Investigators and caseworkers were assigned. A safety plan was implemented. The family needed ongoing oversight, the agency decided.

Caseworkers warned Tim and Amy that they must clean the mess, make sure their kids went to school and the doctor and have food in the house. If they didn’t, a judge could decide their kids should be sent to foster homes.

Despite the warning, just over a month later, in June, Tim was arrested for beating Amy.

Amy told police her husband got drunk and angry because she wouldn’t drink beer with him. Her lip was swollen from a punch. Tim bit her, grabbed her hair and slammed her against a wall, she told deputies.

Even with violence added to the family’s problems, the Elkins kids stayed in the home. A domestic violence charge filed in Madison County Circuit Court against Tim was eventually dropped because Amy wouldn’t cooperate with prosecutors. The family remained on Garner Street for three more years.

During this time and later when the Elkins family moved to Main Street in New Douglas, social workers regularly confronted Amy about the need to eliminate the incredible filth that seemed to grow almost overnight.

Neil Skene, the current senior deputy director of DCFS, said the death of Matthew Elkins might have been prevented if the department’s persistence with getting Tim and Amy to clean up had been accompanied by mental counseling for both.

“The child welfare system did a fine job on the most severe symptom of this family’s problems, which was the condition of the house,” Skene said. “These parents loved their children but were overwhelmed by their circumstances, the number of children, and a limited understanding and ability about parenthood. We did not examine underlying problems as well as we might have.”

 
The Elkins family filled the garage of their former home with garbage, too.

Been through this before

The Elkins’ hometown of New Douglas is a small village of about 300 in the northeastern corner of Madison County. There is a food stand, a bar, a couple of churches. There is no local police force. Volunteers man the fire department.

Susan Garcia, Amy’s sister, is a member of the village board. A park with ball diamonds and a playground is open to children. A recreation center houses a small library.

Villagers must drive to Litchfield, Highland or Edwardsville for groceries. New Douglas is relaxed, informal. Neighbors gossip on the way to the post office.

The Elkins family’s hidden trash must have been difficult, if not impossible, to keep totally secret.

There was the smell from tons of rotting garbage, the littered yard, broken windows, black ooze that crept down siding near the stairs to the backyard. And, the trash truck never stopped at 406 N. Main.

“He’s just lazy,” Mayor June Ridens said of Tim Elkins.

“If you keep having kids and people give you stuff for free, you just keep going on that way. Why work for things if you can get it for nothing?” asked Elkins’ former neighbor and Tim critic, Josh Bailey.

But Dr. Marcia Sirota, a Toronto psychiatrist who has written extensively about families who live in squalor, said the answer is more complicated.

“I don’t think laziness is a thing. Laziness is this catch-all phrase. Remember the phrase ‘nervous breakdown?’ That’s not a thing, either. That’s a layman’s term that clusters a whole bunch of things. I think laziness is just a word that clusters a bunch of things into its rubric. People can be lazy because they are depressed. They can be lazy because they are crippled with anxiety. People can be lazy because they are overwhelmed with self-criticism. People can be lazy because they are mentally delayed. There may be many reasons why people don’t do the expected activities that other people do.”

A neighbor, Robert “Steve” Atwood, tried to help the family, especially the children.

Atwood, 66, drove Tim to and from a factory job in Litchfield for months while Tim’s license was suspended after the drunken driving crash. Then, Tim quit. Atwood didn’t know why.

“A man with nine kids needs a job,” said Atwood, whose son, Jared, 14, went to school with the older Elkins girls.

On days when the Elkins children missed the school bus to Highland, “They would knock on my door and I would drive them,” Atwood said. He had also offered to let Tim place trash bags in front of the Atwood house on pickup day, but the free offer was ignored.

“He’s always been kind of like an isolationist,” Atwood said of Tim. “His kids would have to knock on their own door to get inside the house.”

Atwood remembered driving his son to the school bus stop when he saw the emergency lights at the Elkins house after Matthew died.

“On that day there were police cars all over the place. State Police, county cars. I said to myself, ‘What has Tim done now?’”

The kids at the bus stop saw the cop cars around the Elkins house, too.

“That’s all we talked about the whole way to school,” Jared Atwood said.

Wayne Ambuehl worried about the kids, too.

Ambuehl was so shocked about the condition of his rental house after the Elkins family moved out in 2012, he went to the police, the village board and the mayor.

After he found out the family had left, Ambuehl surveyed his property and was shocked. The squalor and filth horrified him. A decayed rat carcass lay on the bedroom floor near a broken baby bassinet. This discovery made Ambuehl fear for the children.

“The smell was so bad you could never get it out of the place,” he said.

A deputy went to question Amy and check on the kids.

“My husband lost his job. We couldn’t afford trash pickup and rent,” Amy told him. It was the same story. Over and over again. The deputy filed a report.

Ambuehl estimated he lost $30,000 in back rent, clean up and damages at the Garner Street house. He sold it for $6,000.

An overall, lasting fix for the Elkins family eluded police and social workers. The reason why may have little to do with cleanliness or the lack of it. Instead, it may be rooted in underlying mental illness, Sirota said.

“Even though they are living in these horrible circumstances, the people who are doing it may have no insight whatsoever, so that’s how that can happen. It’s just this lack of insight. A lot of people who have mental disorders have a lack of insight,” the psychiatrist said.

Dr. John Snowdon, a professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Sydney in Australia, has studied and written about people who live in squalor. Snowdon speculated they were simply people who lost their ability to feel disgust, perhaps because of long exposure to filth or underlying mental problems.

The family’s situation was “remarkable” given the parents’ relatively young age, lack of substance abuse and lack of obvious mental illness. A long-term effect on the children is probable, both agreed.

“Surely, living like that has a big impact on personality. It can lead to conduct and behavioral disorders,” Snowdon said.

“In terms of the children, children are wired to love and be attached to their parents. It’s an adaptive mechanism so that children bond with their caregivers even when the care is substandard or dangerous. The fact is that most children, especially when younger, don’t have any points of comparison with their living condition so their way of living becomes their normal. They can’t see that there is something wrong with it,” Sirota said.

But to take the children away from their parents would also have a long-lasting detrimental effect, Snowdon said.

“Poverty and a dirty house by themselves are not a reason to move children into foster care. We prefer to keep families together, because children bond with their parents and love them. Separating a child from parents leaves permanent trauma and psychological scars,” Skene, the former DCFS director, said.

 
A shrine outside the Elkins house in New Douglas. The house built for them by Habitat for Humanity was condemned.

On Rosenthal Corner

At the edge of New Douglas is a place the locals call Rosenthal Corner where the Elkins family would eventually settle. Here is Amy’s ancestral land. Her grandfather had a house there.

The Rosenthals have lived there for generations. The Rosenthal mill was there. Families farmed there, then sent their children away to college to become doctors, business owners. Most didn’t come back.

But Mary Rosenthal and her daughters stayed. Amy’s mother, Mary, lives across the street only about 60 feet from where she grew up. Amy’s sister, Susan Garcia, lives across the street beside Rosenthal’s small house.

On the spot where her grandfather’s house once stood, a new house would be built, especially for the Elkins family, by Habitat for Humanity in Highland. It was only four blocks away from Ambuehl’s rental house on Garner Street, but here, there would be no landlords.

The new house had four bedrooms and two baths. Everything was new from carpet to cabinets, appliances to bathtubs. The kids would have privacy. The family could gather for movie nights in the living room. Amy could cook dinner on a new stove in a clean kitchen.

There would be family Christmases and birthday parties there. Picnics and barbecues would be held in the backyard. It would be a fresh start, a chance.

But in exchange for the house, Tim and Amy had to make promises. They, or someone in their name, had to work for 400 hours on the construction. Sweat equity, the builder Habitat for Humanity calls it. They also had to pay the mortgage of $250 a month and maintain the home.

Tim and Amy qualified and received a no-interest loan. They would be homeowners.

They moved into the house in November 2012. The rooms were filled with new furniture, beds and computers in the kids’ rooms. A table sat in the kitchen where the family could all eat.

The promise of the new house eased tensions between Tim and his mother-in-law. Mary Rosenthal was invited for her first Christmas at the Elkins’ house that year.

But the door to the house soon would once again close against the world.

Tim would reinstate his ban on Rosenthal. He demanded that Christmas donations for the family be left on the front porch.

Just before Christmas break in 2014, DCFS received a call from the school about one of the younger Elkins boys. The caller reported that the child’s teeth were rotten to the gum line, he smelled and his clothes were dirty.

A child welfare investigator came to the Elkins’ door on Dec. 10. Amy did the talking. She stalled.

No, he couldn’t come in the house. It was messy and Amy wanted to tidy it. If he wanted to check the kids, Amy said he could do it on the front porch.

She and Tim knew to let social workers inside could lead to the destruction of their family. They had to hold him off. He couldn’t see what was inside. They would lose the kids.

She summoned the eight children to the front porch, had them line up side by side, and told each to open their mouths so the investigator could check their teeth. Cars passed by. Neighbors were returning from work.

The kids appeared clean, the investigator noted. None of them said they were abused. They all felt safe at home. They got plenty to eat.

And Amy promised to make a dental appointment for her son with the tooth decay.

Amy had kept the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services at bay for now. The threat had passed. But that didn’t stop the visits.

A month later, the same investigator came back. And this time, Amy couldn’t turn him away. She stood on the front porch, crying and begging him not to take her kids.

When he told her he must inspect inside her house, she confessed: “It is trashed.”

As he walked through the house, he spotted swarms of gnats and dozens of scurrying roaches. He stepped carefully so as not to walk in dog feces. Amy had not fulfilled her previous promise to caseworkers to get rid of the dog.

They hadn’t made a single house payment. They were going to lose the house. Tim had moved out, she said. It was just her and the kids.

Dirt and debris soiled every room. Amy stood close to the investigator as he moved through the house, making notes on a clipboard.

She promised to clean the house. Her sister would help. The children could stay with her mom until it was done, Amy said.

This time, DCFS didn’t take Amy at her word. They regularly checked on the progress of the cleaning. The agency enlisted the older girls and the 8-year-old boy to help. And, they assigned home specialist Jeanie Loyd Cordevant to make sure it all happened.

Cordevant, Amy and the older kids hauled trash bags to a backyard burn pile until the fire was overwhelmed. The remaining bags were stored in a shed until they could be burned. They scrubbed floors and counters and washed the microwave. Bug killer was sprayed in the refrigerator and freezer before washing with soap and hot water.

Cordevant organized doctors’ and dentists’ visits, procured donated appliances and showed her wards how to place bug bombs and cover the holes in the wall with kits she bought at a hardware store.

Like a drill sergeant Mary Poppins, Cordevant pressed Amy to get the kids to school. She made charts to make sure the children finished their chores and wrote a list of rewards for completion and consequences for failure.

For a while, it got better.

In July 2015, Cordevant drove Amy to 20 different places in one day to fill out job applications.

“Amy was in good spirits and appeared to be proud of herself for her efforts,” the DCFS worker noted in her report.

Then, progress stopped. Three more meetings were scheduled in late July. Amy missed them all.

Though under the threat of losing the kids, Amy found reasons not to meet with the caseworker. Sick kids, her husband’s grandmother’s broken hip, food pantry runs.

On July 30, Cordevant was told by her supervisor to close the case. Cordevant’s last entry was, “This is the final note for this client. Services have now ended.”

Snowdon, the Australian psychologist, said DCFS should have continued monitoring the family, had them undergo a mental evaluation and kept Cordevant assigned.

“This is a very unusual case in that there appears to be some structure with the kids, some rules the parents have in place, but there is a lack of insight on how the squalor would impact the family,” he said.

Eight months later, Amy would be pregnant with Matthew.

 

Favorite boy

Tim didn’t want to talk to reporters. Thomas Hildebrand, his lawyer, said it was OK, but Tim still said no.

Tim began his prison sentence at Graham Correctional Center in September, but was later moved to the minimum security East Moline Correctional Center in Rock Island County. His parole date is in January 2020.

Exactly why Tim refused to pay for trash removal may never be publicly known. The Sheriff’s Department video of his interrogation doesn’t include this question.

Amy didn’t want to talk to reporters either. She was scheduled to go on trial Dec. 8 — three days after what would have been Matthew’s first birthday — but the case was reset to Jan. 8. Jurors will decide whether Matthew’s death was “an unintentional killing that results from recklessness or negligence,” as Illinois law defines involuntary manslaughter.

Certainly the police video of the inside of the home would shock jurors. To watch it in its entirety is like bumping into something terrifying in the night: a large spider, a dead rat, a lifeless kitten.

Everything Tim and Amy feared has come to pass. Tim is in prison. Amy faces the same fate.

The kids now live with Amy’s sister and her mother. They live across the street from each other, within a block of their old home. They still go to the same schools, play on the same streets. Every day they see the place where their little baby brother died. But experts theorize they will never again live as the family they once knew, even after Tim is released from prison.

“Unfortunately, because the disorder is characterized by such extreme recidivism, unless the parents have some sort of treatable disorder, which would require a correct diagnosis and treatment, unless that were to happen it’s unlikely that the family would be reunited because the likelihood is that when Tim gets out of prison, he will revert back to his previous behaviors and that’s very unfortunate,” Sirota said.

But Presson noted in one of the interviews, the kids seemed relieved, now able to bathe and do their homework and go to the bathroom with the door shut.

“Each child is born with an innate resilience. Some kids are born tougher and they manage to overcome a lot. Other children are born more sensitive and they are more susceptible to trauma and neglect,” Sirota said.

“It’s a combination of nature and nurture. It’s all the different circumstances in the home and the relationship between the parents and the children and also the children’s own innate resilience. That would explain why some kids in that family that are doing better and some not doing as well. It’s that nature-nurture combination.”

DCFS believed the family would be saved if the house was cleaned. When it wasn’t, the police and prosecutors blamed the parents.

The 5-year-old girl, Daddy’s favorite, imagined the cat was to blame. Was it reality or had it been a dream when she saw that black cat’s tail brush baby Matthew’s cheek?

At the funeral, Matthew wore blue in his donated casket: blue sweater, blue cap, blue pants. His brothers and sisters walked to his side and said their goodbyes. Matthew is buried in New Douglas Cemetery, less than a mile from the now condemned house on Main Street where he lived his whole life.

It’s near enough that the little girl can almost see the grave of her “favorite of the boys” when she rides her bike or plays with her cat in her grandma’s yard.

Beth Hundsdorfer: 618-239-2570, @bhundsdorfer

George Pawlaczyk: 618-239-2625, @gapawlaczyk

matthew marker 2.jpg
Baby Matthew Elkins is buried in New Douglas cemetery.
Beth Hundsdorfer