20 years later: System let down the children killed in county’s worst fire

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Twenty years ago — in the late hours of Friday, Nov. 13, 1998 — a vicious fire tore through Karen Simpson’s house at the corner of Sexton Road and Yorway Street in Marion Township, killing three special-needs children inside.

School pictures of the Simpson children killed in the fire, as published in the Livingston County Press & Argus

Dead were Christopher, 9, Nicole, 7, and Jordan, 5, killed by the fire that goes down in history as one of the worst ever in Livingston County.

Photo from the Livingston County Press & Argus

As we were coming to grips with the immensity of the tragedy, we would quickly learn that well before the fire, the Simpson house was a time bomb, tick, tick, ticking away in clear view of everyone who had the power to defuse it.

Inside that house were a total of nine special-needs children, eight of whom were adopted on the recommendation of the Livingston County Family Independence Agency with the blessing of the Probate Court by Simpson, a self-medicating former nurse with a closed-head injury who was unable to work, and who survived on disability and SSI. Each of the nine children in the house came with a $1,000-a-month subsidy.

But that’s not what keeps me angry after all these years.

I just can’t let go of the fact that the safety net that should have caught these children didn’t. What keeps me angry all these years later is that no one has been held to account.

It wasn’t like authorities didn’t know about the horrific living conditions in the house.

Karen Simpson | Photo from the Livingston County Press & Argus

Official documents detailed the house as strewn with animal and human feces, dirty diapers, broken glass, and other assorted filth. Karen Simpson admitting to using alcohol, marijuana and prescription drugs — the woman had amassed over 250 prescriptions, for goodness sake. She restrained the children by “hog-tying” them, and she disciplined them with sticks, boards, baseball bats and paddles, or a “water torture” procedure in which she forced the kids to drink water until they threw up. Sometimes, Simpson kept the kids home from school to hide their injuries.

Documents detail how the kids had to help Simpson off the toilet, how they had to dress her, and help her talk on the phone.

Then there were the complaints: Workers at the house two years before the fire reported the horrible conditions to authorities. A neighbor alerted Child Protective Services about Simpson children at her door at inappropriate times, asking for help or food because they were hungry. School staffers reported the children arriving for the day hungry, dirty, smelling of urine, and dressed inappropriately.

It was clear no responsible adult was caring for these kids.

And yet, no one with any authority stepped in.

Even more confounding is that less than a week before the fatal fire, Karen Simpson adopted another child on the recommendation of the Family Independence Agency and the blessing of the Probate Court.

How could this happen?

That’s what’s kept me angry, and after all these years, I still can’t understand why so many people with so much knowledge did so little to protect these vulnerable little souls.

The warning signs were as big and bright as the Las Vegas strip, and the cries for help couldn’t have been any louder or more dire.

Photo by Phyllis Watkins

And yet, no one in a position to do so moved to save the children from that frightfully dangerous house, until that awful night 20 years ago, when that horrible fire roared through the house, killing Christopher, 9, Nicole, 7, and Jordan, 5.

The cause of the fire was never determined, but authorities suspected a space heater in the breezeway of the home may have started the blaze.

It wasn’t until after these three children perished, and after lengthy legal proceedings in which Karen Simpson fought to retain custody of the surviving children, that the court stepped in to do the right thing and terminated her parental rights.

That it got to that point is maddening. That Child Protective Services and the Family Independence Agency weren’t held liable is unfathomable.

But there you have it.

The system let these kids down.

So, today, just like 20 years ago, when I stood in front of the still-smoldering house, breathing in smoke and fighting to hold back tears, I give up a prayer for Christopher, Nicole and Jordan, who would have been 29, 27 and 25 this year.

Today, I also pray that this never happens again.

If you want to see the front page story about the fire, click here.

If you want to read some of my columns about this case:

What happened with Simpson adoptions?

Simpson shouldn’t get kids back

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About Maria Stuart 122 Articles
Journalist Maria Stuart lives in Howell. She worked at The Livingston County Press/Livingston County Daily Press & Argus as reporter, editor and managing editor from 1990-2009. She is often spotted holding court at Uptown Coffeehouse.


  1. Heartbreaking. I moved to Howell a few years after this happened and didn’t know anything about this story. It’s sickening that no one cared enough to help those children.

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