The family of a 24-year-old South Side mother who has been charged with child endangerment after a house fire killed three of her five children is trying to raise money to get the woman out of jail for her childrens' funeral.
Charlene Cheatem, of the 8300 block of South Buffalo Avenue, has admitted to police that she made a mistake when she left her four youngest children home alone while she took her 6-year-old to school Wednesday morning, but her family says she's suffered enough.
At a bond hearing at the Cook County Criminal Courthouse Friday, where a judge reluctantly set bail at $75,000 in connection with the three counts of child endangerment she faces.
"You have my deepest sympathies," Judge Adam Bourgeois Jr. told Cheatem, 24. "I cannot begin to imagine how you must feel right now."
Cheatem's family needs to raise 10 percent of her bail so she can be released. So far, they have raised about $3,600.
Three children were dead at the scene of the Southwest Side fire, which started about 10:40 a.m. in the three-story building where Cheatem lived. Firefighters rescued a 4-year-old sibling, who was taken to the University of Chicago Comer Children’s Hospital, Fire Media Affairs Director Eve Rodriguez said.
The three dead children were found in a third-floor bedroom. Chicago police said the fire was started by one of the children who was playing with a lighter.
The Sun-Times reported Saturday that a source revealed that Cheatem told police one of her children had been disciplined in the past for trying to set things on fire. Cheatem's aunt, Jacqueline Gordon, confirmed that a child in the home had recently set a fire, but it was extinguished.
Firefighters rescued a fourth child from the second floor, where he was found sitting and playing, 23rd Battalion Fire Chief Rosalind Jones said.
Sharon Lockhart, sister of the children’s father, identified the dead as Jimmy Gates, 7 months; Tyrell Gates, 2; and Sherell Gates, 3.
A Thursday autopsy determined all three children died of smoke inhalation from a house fire, the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office said.
"She made a careless mistake by leaving the babies unattended,'' Cheatem's aunt, Jacqueline Gordon, said. "It's killing the family that she is in jail. We're trying to come up with a plan to get her out for the funeral. ... She been punished. She lost her babies.''
Neighbor Josette Wardell, 37, said Cheatem is a mother of five. She is pregnant with her sixth child, the Sun-Times reported.
Devonte Appleton, who identified the children as his nephews, said the hospitalized boy is “doing fine. They say he has some smoke inhalation.”
A fifth child, a 6-year-old who attends Sullivan Elementary School, was placed in the care of relatives following the fire, according to Illinois Department of Children and Family Services spokesman Jimmie Whitelow. He said DCFS is investigating the deaths of the three children but has had no prior contact with the family.
Beyond Cheatem's "careless" decision, Gordon said her niece has mental issues and receives a "disability" check from the state. Gordon said her niece is six months pregnant.
"She is unable to take care of herself,'' Gordon said. "She needs help.''
The fire, which began on the third floor of the home, spread to the attic and roof of the building to the north -- at 8336 S. Buffalo, Rodriguez said. The second building sustained extensive damage.
Firefighters found a smoke detector on the second floor, but it was not working. There were no other smoke detectors found in the home, Fire Commissioner John Brooks said.
The American Red Cross of Greater Chicago provided food, clothing, shelter and emotional support to nine people -- five children and four adults.
The blaze was extinguished at 11:25 a.m. and the cause remains under investigation Thursday morning, the Chicago Fire Department said.