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Task force, investigating child deaths, charges metro-east mom

by Diana Zoga

KMOV.com

Posted on July 7, 2011 at 12:10 AM

(KMOV) -- At first, the death of Kenyartte Griffin Jr. seemed like a tragic accident. The six-year-old died when his family's apartment caught fire in January. He was upstairs. His younger brother survived and his mother claimed she'd stopped at a neighbors before the fire broke out.

The newly activated Southern Illinois Child Death Investigative Task Force, was asked to help investigate the death in East St. Louis. Investigators said they learned that Maria Ware, the children's mother, left her six year old and four year old home alone for at least an hour on the night of the fire.

Investigators said they learned the fire was started by a lighter in a bedroom and that Kenyartte, who was only six-years-old, had a history of playing with lighters.

The task force worked with the fire marshal and presented what they learned to prosecutors.

Nearly seven months after Kenyartte's death, the state's attorney in St. Clair County charged his 32-year-old mother with endangering his life.

The task force has worked about a dozen cases since the start of the year. Not all lead to criminal charges.

The task force may work with the Major Case Squad on homicide cases, but its focus is looking more closely at child deaths - that may not be obvious homicides.

"Everything is followed as if it is a criminal case and if it turns out it's not criminal, we can rest assured the case was investigated thoroughly," said Dave Wasmuth, a Illinois State Police investigator and member of the task force.

Whenever a child is seriously injured or dies, police call the Department of Child and Family Services and the agency will notify the task force. The task force will also help pay for autopsies and expert witnesses, taking the financial burden off of smaller departments.

According to the commander of the task force, the Department of Child and Family Services has agreed to fund the pilot program for the year - at a cost of $150,000 according to Kevin O'Connell.

The pilot program in southern Illinois may later be expanded to other parts of the state.

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