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Brandon Walker trial highlighted failures of DCFS to remove 8-year-old Navin Jones from his parents’ care

Navin Jones
File photo
Navin Jones

The father of Navin Jones, an 8-year-old boy who died of severe malnutrition and abuse in 2022, was found guilty of first degree murder Friday after a weeklong trial that detailed the abuse and further revealed how the Department of Children and Family Services did not act to remove the child from his parents' care.

Brandon Walker, 42, of Peoria, could face life in prison after a Peoria County jury found him guilty of murdering Navin in a "brutal and heinous manner, indicative of wanton cruelty.” The jury, made up of eight men and four women, took about 45 minutes to deliberate the verdict. Walker will be sentenced Feb. 28.

Navin weighed just 30 pounds when his mother, Stephanie Jones, found him unresponsive in his room in March 2022. Jones, 37, pleaded guilty to murder last week and will be sentenced in February. She faces at least 20 years in prison and up to 100 years total.

Throughout the week, police officers, medical experts as well as Walker's family, friends and colleagues testified. Walker’s defense attorney, in a short interview after the verdict was read, said his client plans to appeal.

Jurors were shown graphic photos of Navin’s skeleton body with cuts, bruises and scars, as well as the horrific conditions he lived in – a desolate bedroom littered with feces. Other images showed how Navin progressively grew skinnier in the final 18 months of his life.

The trial revealed how a DCFS investigator believed she did not have the authority to remove the boy from his parent’s home about a month before he died, even though she observed him to be sickly. Prosecutors said if she did her job, Navin may still be alive.

Yet prosecutor Terry Muench placed blame on Navin’s parents, who he said tried to deceive the state agency.

“I’m not going to stand here and defend DCFS,” Muench said. “It would be difficult to do that.”

The conviction of Walker represents the latest failure of DCFS to care for some of the state's most vulnerable residents and have those lapses showcased during a criminal trial. Plagued by a high vacancy rate of investigators, DCFS has repeatedly come under sharp criticism for failing to intercede to protect children at risk. In October, in another case, a Lake County judge found one of two former DCFS employees guilty of ignoring warning signs of abuse of another child who died, 5-year-old A.J. Freund.

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Navin and his older brother had been temporarily living with his parents for several months when the boy died on March 29, 2022. Their grandmother and guardian, Laura Walker, attempted to remove them from her son’s home and had sought help from the police and DCFS, according to her testimony.

Walker’s defense attorney placed the blame on Navin’s mother, arguing that the child was often in her care because Brandon Walker worked long days at his car repair and towing business. Attorney Gary Morris also said Walker believed he was unable to provide Navin medical care because he did not have guardianship.

Walker, who testified Thursday, said he last saw Navin two days before he died. They watched a movie together and Walker said he observed his son walk up two flights of stairs when he went to bed – contradicting medical experts' testimony that it was unlikely Navin could have much mobility in his final days due to his poor condition.

The father said he rarely went to his sons’ rooms and was not often there to feed them meals, citing his long work hours. Walker also testified he, not Navin’s mother, was in contact with DCFS. He said he was seeking guardianship in order to obtain medical care for Navin and he was frustrated at how long it was taking to complete.

But Donna Cruz, Peoria County assistant state's attorney, argued that Walker, as his father, had a duty to protect Navin. She also pointed to evidence on how Walker brought the older son to the emergency room and doctor’s appointments, even though he also didn’t have guardianship of the older boy.

Pediatric nurses and physicians, who cared for the older brother, testified during the trial that they did not discuss or ask Walker about guardianship when treating his older son.

A pathologist for the Peoria County Coroner’s office, who performed the autopsy, and a child abuse pediatrician, who treated Navin in the emergency room the day he died, both testified that the boy died from severe malnutrition and abuse.

The state showed how there were no doorknobs on Navin’s door, instead rope was used to close the doors, prosecutors said. Medical experts testified there were ligature marks on his wrists, indicating he was tied up.

Police also described a “putrid” smell in a closet in his room, in which they found feces smeared on the walls. A note was also on Navin’s door, telling the older brother to not let the boy out or provide him with any food.

“Every day that Brandon Walker left Navin Jones in Stephanie Jones’ care, he aided her,” Cruz said.

“Every day he came home and saw Navin Jones wasting away before his eyes, he aided and abetted Stephanie Jones’ starvation of this child,” she said. “Every day he decided to not take Navin to the ER because he didn’t want DCFS to get involved, he aided and abetted Stephanie Jones.”

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DCFS Investigator Didn’t Believe Navin’s Condition ‘Was Critical’

DCFS had been involved in Navin’s life since he was an infant, when he tested positive for opiates and was put under the agency’s custody. Four years later, Laura Walker gained permanent guardianship.

Walker, who was often emotional during her testimony, said Navin lived a happy and normal life while he lived with her in Washington, Illinois.

During the summer of 2021, she took a short trip to visit her ailing mother in Florida and left Navin with his parents for 10 days. When she returned home to Illinois, Walker said her son and Jones refused to return Navin. She subsequently contacted Peoria police and DCFS, but the boy remained with his parents.

While DCFS made several attempts to visit the children, it wasn’t until February 2022 when DCFS investigator Kathy Harvey visited the home and observed Navin to be gaunt, sickly and “very thin,” according to her testimony. She said she spent about 15 minutes with Navin and saw him eat popcorn and drink juice.

Harvey testified she did not believe at the time she had the authority to help Navin get medical care.

“I didn’t believe it was critical,” Harvey said of Navin’s condition. “I didn’t know he was going to die.”

Instead, she pushed for Laura Walker to sign over temporary guardianship to her son, citing Navin needing medical care. 

“I was afraid for his health,” Laura Walker testified, explaining why she decided to turn over temporary guardianship to her son. “I was afraid there was something critically wrong. The case worker insisted this was the only way to get medical attention and I signed it and sent it.”

Harvey said she received the guardianship paperwork from Laura Walker in the mail on March 29, 2022, the day Navin died.

DCFS spokeswoman Heather Tarczan declined to answer questions from the Illinois Answers Project regarding Harvey’s assessment and the proper protocol.

“Any time a life of a child is lost it is a profound tragedy and it is even more heartbreaking when that life is taken by the very people who are supposed to love and care for that child,” Tarczan wrote in an email.

However, Charles Golbert, the Cook County Public Guardian, told Illinois Answers that he believes “Harvey was seriously wrong in her initial assessment.”

“That erroneous belief reflects a huge failure of training at DCFS, or judgment, or lack of appropriate supervision, or perhaps a combination,” he wrote in an email.

If there are concerns about a child’s health, the agency can take protective custody of a child for up to two days without going to court, he added.

“As a DCFS investigator, if Navin had injuries that needed medical attention, she could and should have taken him to an emergency room,” he wrote.

He noted that the agency’s investigators have caseloads that far exceed national rates with DCFS's investigator vacancy rate at more than 20%.

An Illinois Answers Project investigation last year found that the state agency has been plagued with issues, including rising abuse and neglect complaints and a number of children who died while in the agency’s care.

In January, the agency’s Office of Inspector General published a report that found there were 171 child deaths involving DCFS in fiscal year 2022 – the year Navin died.

A September state audit showed how the agency repeatedly failed to follow state laws aimed to protect children from abuse and neglect. DCFS Director Marc D. Smith announced this fall that he would be leaving his position at the end of the year.

This article first appeared on Illinois Answers Project and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.