Metro-East News

Boy died after being returned to his mother despite warning. The judge now works for DCFS.

Laninya Cason
Laninya Cason Provided photo

Carrie Cross told the judge the next time she would see 3-year-old Elijah Campbell, he would be dead.

She was right.

"I loved that boy. We had a lot of love for him," Cross said.

Elijah died in 2014 — three years after St. Clair County Judge Laninya Cason terminated Cross' guardianship and returned the boy to his biological mother, Mio Campbell.

Cross, in a recent interview, said she felt she needed to speak out about the judge when she learned that Cason now worked for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. Cason, a former St. Clair County Judge, is regional supervising counsel for the child-protection agency. She is also a candidate for circuit judge.

"I don’t feel like she should work with children’s cases after this one," Cross said.

Cason didn’t remember the specifics of the 8-year-old case.

Elijah Campbell Provided

“It is unfortunate that a tragedy such as this is being used for political gain, if that is what this is about,” Cason said.

Donald Hoffmann, a lawyer who was appointed to represent Elijah’s interests in court, investigated the case and made two recommendations not to terminate Cross’ guardianship of the boy.

"The living arrangements is not a safe environment for Elijah," Hoffmann wrote in a report. "It is not in his best interest for the guardianship to be terminated."

Hoffmann could not be reached for comment.

Hoffmann visited the basement apartment on Alhambra Court in East St. Louis where Campbell lived. There was a man there, wearing an ankle monitor. It was Campbell's fiance', but Campbell wouldn't tell Hoffmann his name, saying it had nothing to do with her and her son, according to Hoffmann's report.

Hoffmann persisted, eventually getting the name from one of Campbell's friends. Hoffmann checked Aki Dillard's criminal record and learned he was on parole for second-degree murder. During his 11-year prison stay, Dillard raped a cellmate over a $25 debt and racked up 11 major prison violations.

Hoffmann discovered Dillard had been to prison on a burglary charge before. There were also several arrests for battery, Hoffmann reported, including a pending charge.

Cross continued to ask Cason not to return Elijah to the biological mother, but on April 7, 2010, Cason ordered the guardianship be terminated, against Hoffmann's recommendation.

“There would have been no reason for me to terminate if (Hoffmann) was adamantly against it,” Cason said. “From what I have gathered from the court file, the mother was to engage in domestic violence and mental health counseling to regain custody of the minor. That was done and the child was ultimately given back to the mother.”

The day after Hoffmann filed his written recommendation, Cason ordered that the 3-year-old Elijah be returned to his biological mother — a woman Cross said the child barely knew.

That was the last time Cross saw Elijah, after she had cared for him for three years.

“She just took him. The judge told Ms. Campbell to make sure that Elijah and I kept up a relationship, but she didn’t. I never saw him alive again,” Cross said.

Campbell married Dillard and moved to Michigan.

On Feb. 28, 2014, paramedics were called to the Dillards' home at 1812 Ames St. in Saginaw, Mich. They found Elijah with a head injury and burns on his body, according to press accounts from Michigan. Police were called. Three other children were taken from the home.

The week Elijah was killed, a social worker came to the house to investigate a split lip reported by someone at Elijah’s school. Elijah told the school worker that his dad beat him because he had allowed his sister to wet the bed.

Dillard told the social worker Elijah had fallen. The 6-year-old changed his story. The social worker went away.

Campbell, who was pregnant with her seventh child at the time of Elijah’s death, was sentenced to four years in prison. She received the sentence as part of a plea deal that included testifying against her husband. Dillard was sentenced to 100 years in prison.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) statistics show that more than 700,000 children are referred to child protective agencies as a result of abuse or neglect in the U.S. each year. According to Purva Grover, M.D., a pediatric eme

“I never trusted that man,” Cross said.

Cross became Elijah's guardian in 2007 when he was just a few weeks old. Campbell left him with Cross, who was, at that time, essentially a stranger. Cross cared for the baby like her own, she said, with only sporadic visits from Campbell. Cross said she asked Campbell to sign over temporary guardianship so she could take Elijah to the doctor and get his immunizations.

For three years, Cross cared for Elijah.

In 2010, Campbell asked the court to terminate the guardianship arrangement. She wanted Elijah back.

While Cason didn't remember the specifics of the case, she said she believed that everyone agreed to Elijah's return to his mother. The handwritten order reflects that, but Cross disagreed with this account.

"I wouldn't have just given him back, not when I found out what he was going into," Cross said.

Under Illinois law, a judge can only terminate a guardianship if the parent shows there has been a “material change in the circumstances of the minor or the parent has occurred since the entry of the order appointing the guardian.”

It’s unclear whether Cason ever made that finding. There was no court reporter making a transcript or audio recording of the hearing. St. Clair County Chief Judge Andrew Gleeson said it would be “very unusual” for there to be no record of a hearing to terminate guardianship.

Cason, 45, was appointed to the bench in 2003 as an associate judge. She served for 12 years. She ran for circuit judge in 2012 after changing political parties from Democrat to Republican. She lost the election to Circuit Judge Zina Cruse.

In 2016, she ran against Circuit Judge Robert LeChien, who died Aug. 31, 2017.

Cason, a Republican, will face Chris Kolker, a Democrat, for LeChien’s vacancy in November.

Cason began working for DCFS in December of 2015. Her annual salary is $85,000.

"Laninya Cason was not a DCFS employee at the time. This case was a private guardianship arrangement, not a DCFS investigation. We have no independent knowledge about the evidence and other considerations she took into account in rendering decisions as a judge in the case," said DCFS Deputy Director Neal Skene.

As for Cross, she said she’s still heartbroken over Elijah’s death. She keeps a picture of Elijah in her front room. Her kids and grandchildren still talk about him.

She traveled to Michigan for Elijah’s funeral, fulfilling the prophecy she made that day in Cason’s courtroom.

“There’s nothing I can do about it now,” Cross said. “Just keep telling the story. Telling people I loved him. Letting people know he was loved.”