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Public guardian blames child welfare agency for man's arson that killed daughter, burned son

By Bethany Krajelis | Dec 30, 2014

A child welfare agency in Chicago is facing accusations it ignored or downplayed the dangers a father posed to his two children who he doused with gasoline and set on fire in December 2012, three months after coming under the agency's watch for threatening to do so.

Cook County Public Guardian Robert F. Harris --as administrator of Nariyah Beler's estate and the next friend for her brother, Naciere, who survived the arson that killed his sister and both of their parents -- filed a wrongful death suit Monday against Association House of Chicago, two of its employees and the children's aunt.

Nariyah and Naciere came to the attention of the Illinois Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) in September 2012, after their father, Nathaniel Beler, threatened to set them on fire during a standoff with police. Nariyah was 3 and Naciere was 9 at that time.

According to the suit, Beler and his children's mother, Taniya Johnson, got into a fight on Sept. 9, 2012 because Beler was not taking his medication for schizophrenia. Beler, Harris alleges, threatened to kill himself and his two kids by pouring gas on them and lighting a match, and even showed Taniya Johnson two cans of gas he had in the closet.

Taniya Johnson apparently calmed Beler down and despite his threat, went to work that day. She told her colleagues what happened and after they told her to call 911, Cicero police went to her apartment to discover the odor of gas and sounds of kids screaming.

Beler, who had a history of mental illness and drug use, told the cops he would blow the building up if they entered, leading them to declare it a hostage situation. Beler eventually released his kids, was arrested and involuntarily committed to a mental health center.

After rescuing Nariyah and Naciere, police discovered their socks were soaked in gas because Beler had made them stand in the bathtub that "was filled with enough gas to level the building," the suit states.

The hostage situation spurred the juvenile court system to get involved on Sept. 13, 2012, when it appointed DCFS as the kids' temporary custodian and placed them with their then-30-year-old maternal aunt, LaPorcha Johnson.

DCFS then assigned the case for monitoring and social work services to Association House, a child welfare agency in Humboldt Park it contracted with. Carmen Malave, a case worker for Association House, was assigned to the case. In addition to Association House, Malave, her supervisor Carlos McFarlane and LaPorcha Johnson are named as defendants in the lawsuit.

After supervising one visit between Beler and his two kids, Harris alleges Malave allowed the visits to take place at his mother's home, the eventual site of the fatal arson.

"The foreseeable happened" on Dec. 28, 2012, when LaPorcha Johnson took Nariyah and Naciere to Beler's mother's home to spend the night, according to the complaint that notes Beler then "carried out his plan, and set the children, their mother and himself on fire."

Taniya Johnson died at the scene, Beler died the next day and Nariyah died three days later with burns over 98 percent of her body. Naciere, now 11, survived, but suffered burns over 40 percent of his body.

"If the Association House had monitored the children and serviced the family as required," Harris asserts, "it would have prevented Nariyah's death and Naciere's painful injuries and lifelong recovery."

Among other allegations, Harris claims the Association House and its employees were negligent by taking Beler's word he was taking his medication and not making him to take drug tests.

He further asserts the Association House defendants were negligent by placing the two kids with LaPorcha Johnson and not giving her the support she needed. LaPorcha Johnson is accused of failing to protect Nariyah and Naciere from danger, not providing adequate care and failing to follow the juvenile court's visitation plans.

Filed in Cook County Circuit Court, the suit was submitted by Harris and Jill Runk with the public guardian's office.

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