GOODFIELD — The mother of a 9-year-old boy charged with murder in a fire that killed four of his relatives and the mother’s fiance said her son is “not a monster.”
“He made a terrible mistake,” Katie Alwood, 28, said of her 9-year-old son. “He’s a child.”
People should instead “pray that he gets the help he needs,” she said Thursday in an interview with the Tribune.
The fire, which took place in early April in a mobile home east of Peoria, claimed the lives of the 9-year-old’s two half-siblings, a cousin, his mother’s fiance and his great-grandmother.
Woodford County State’s Attorney Gregory Minger confirmed Thursday that a 9-year-old was charged with five counts of first-degree murder, two counts of arson and one count of aggravated arson, but did not identify him. Alwood confirmed her 9-year-old son was charged. The Tribune is not naming him because he has been charged as a juvenile.
The decision to charge a 9-year-old with murder prompted concerns from juvenile justice advocates, who said that children that young have long been believed to need help, rather than punishment, if they are found guilty of even the most serious crimes.
“It doesn’t matter how serious the charge is,” said Elizabeth Clarke, president of the Juvenile Justice Initiative. “Neuroscience, brain development, all of it points to the fact that young children shouldn’t be held culpable. … I’m not saying there shouldn’t be some sort of accountability. But they need services, not sanctions.”
Minger said that bringing the charges was a difficult decision.
“Because it was a 9-year-old,” he said. “And all the way around, it was a tragedy.”
If convicted, the maximum sentence would be probation with options for counseling or treatment, but no detention or placement in the department of juvenile justice, due to the child’s age, Minger said.
But the child’s aunt, Samantha Alwood, whose 2-year-old daughter, Rose Alwood, died in the fire, said late Thursday she doesn’t think probation would be sufficient punishment if there’s a guilty verdict. She wishes the sentence could include detention in the juvenile system followed by a prison sentence into adulthood.
“Some days it’s easier to breathe than others,” said Samantha Alwood, 21, about the effect her daughter’s death has had on her. “It hurts knowing that I won’t get to see her first day of school. I won’t get to see her first tooth fall out. I won’t get to see her become someone amazing.”
Along with Rose, the dead included Jason Wall, 34; and two children he and Katie Alwood had, Daemeon Wall, 2, and Ariel Wall, 1. Kathryn Murray, 69, also died in the fire; she was Alwood’s grandmother.
The five deaths were ruled homicides by Woodford County Coroner Tim Ruestman, who said his determination was made after consulting with the Eureka-Goodfield Fire Protection District, Woodford County sheriff’s office and the Office of the State Fire Marshal.
The state fire marshal’s office helped determine the cause and origin of the fire, a spokesman for the agency said. He would not release details about the fire. The county sheriff and chief of the fire protection district didn’t return calls for comment.
Alwood said her son suffered from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and ADHD, and took medication each morning.
“He does have a good heart,” she said, sitting near a memorial of flowers at the base of a tree near the scene of the fire. “He helped feed his brother and sister, helped teach them how to walk. Yes, he should be punished, but he needs mental help, that’s what he needs.”
“He loved Jason, Jason was his daddy,” Alwood said of her 9-year-old boy. “He called him daddy.
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“Even though he lit the fire, I know his intentions were not to kill anybody,” she said. “I know that. He cries and cries and cries because he misses his family.”
She added that her son would bring food to the memorial at the tree, thinking his siblings were going to return and eat it.
“He did take a lot from me,” she said. “But God tells us not to judge.”
She says she knows her family in heaven would want her son “to get the help he needs.”
“I’ve never seen anything go up in flames so fast,” she said, adding she has post-traumatic stress disorder after barely surviving the fire, and the sound of a smoke alarm still gives her panic attacks. “My niece died in my arms. I can still hear them screaming.”
The state’s Department of Children and Family Services opened an investigation into the circumstances of the deaths two days after the fire, according to an agency spokesman. Alwood said they took custody of her son shortly after the fire.
The agency had 13 previous contacts with the 9-year-old’s family before the fire, dating back to when he would have been an infant.
In most cases, the agency either referred Alwood to community services or determined allegations were “unfounded” after the family took some action to fix the situation.
DCFS took custody of the boy shortly after the fire, and he was placed into a foster home, according to an agency spokesman.
The 9-year-old is now both ward of the state and an accused murderer.
Clarke, of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, said she couldn’t understand why the boy was charged with murder. State law doesn’t allow children under 13 to be sentenced to state facilities and doesn’t allow children under 10 to be held at county facilities.
Judges have wide leeway to prescribe mental health care, residential treatment, hospitalization or any other remedy to help a child in both cases of juvenile delinquency and where a child is a victim of an abusive or neglectful home.
Illinois is the home of the world’s first juvenile court — in Cook County, Clarke said. Juvenile court judges, she said, have opted for alternatives to detention as developments in science over the last three decades have given social workers, police officers and others in the world of childhood trauma a greater understanding of how children’s brains develop.
Under the best of circumstances, a child’s brain doesn’t develop a sense of time and consequences until later in adolescence, according to Amanda Moreno, a professor at the Erikson Institute, a graduate school focused on early childhood development.
Children develop their executive function in two ways, sometimes referred to as “hot” and “cold,” Moreno said. Cold refers to tasks like sorting objects by shape or color and develops early in life, but hot refers to things like weighing risk against reward and is developed much later.
This is the argument juvenile justice advocates use for keeping young children out of the criminal system — that even if they have a perfectly normal developmental environment, they wouldn’t be fully developed.
“Even at age 8 or 9, there’s a lot they don’t know about being future oriented,” Moreno said. “Just because they answer a question like, ‘Do you understand that if you set fire to something, that someone could get hurt?’ doesn’t mean you understand what would happen in the future because of your specific actions,” she said. “Sense of time is an extremely late developing skill.”