The neighbor reportedly said she had tried to help the boy, but should have done more

By Hilary Shenfeld
Updated August 08, 2016 04:10 PM
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The mother of one of the men charged in the case of Manuel “Manny” Aguilar – a 4-year-old Chicago boy found burned and so tiny authorities initially thought he was an infant – reportedly says she had tried to help the boy, but should have done more.

“We’re just as guilty as anybody else because had I called [Illinois Department of Children and Family Services], would this be happening right now? Probably not,” Candice Perez told The Chicago Tribune. (PEOPLE has not been able to reach her for comment.)

Manny’s partially charred body was found last week in the basement of an abandoned home. A container of lighter fluid was nearby, according to the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office.

Manny’s 27-year-old mother, Alyssa Garcia; a 17-year-old prosecutors have called her boyfriend; and 19-year-old Christian Camarena are all charged with felony counts of concealment of a death and attempted arson, according to Chicago police.

Prosecutors said Garcia allegedly admitted that she found Manny dead on July 29, and that she and the others later drove him to a house and set him aflame because she needed to “get rid of the body” and didn’t want her other children taken away. More charges might be filed after results from the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office are completed, police said.

Prosecutors in court last week detailed Manny’s short life in harrowing detail, alleging that he was kept in a back storage room that constantly smelled of urine and feces, often was allegedly forced to be completely naked because he would urinate on himself, suffered alleged beatings that once resulted in a black eye, would go days without food and was so skinny that his ribs were showing.

Perez, Camarena’s mother, told the Tribune that her family is neighbors with Garcia and that they fed and cared for some of her kids. Garcia has five other children, according to reports: They are 10, 8, 6 and her youngest are week-old twins, born premature and still in the hospital for monitoring.

“We have brought those kids to our house, we have fed them, we were there for them,” Perez told the Tribune. “Just because they weren’t our kids and just because they weren’t related to us, we treated them the same way we would any of our other kids. Even the little boy.”

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Perez also told the paper she should have contacted the state DCFS earlier to intervene, but she was afraid Garcia’s children would have been taken away.

“I should have made a selfish decision and said, ‘You know what? They all got to go,’ because ultimately, would this be happening?” Perez told the Tribune.

‘Safety Is Everyone’s Responsibility’

While not commenting specifically on Garcia’s case, DCFS said in an exclusive statement to PEOPLE that witnesses to child abuse or neglect should come forward immediately.

“We cannot stress enough how important it is for the community to get involved when they see a child in crisis,” Jacqui Colyer, an Illinois DCFS regional administrator, tells PEOPLE. “You need to call the DCFS hotline and 911 immediately.”

Calls to DCFS are confidential, Colyer says, and “our No. 1 priority is to make sure children are safe and protected, but we also work to keep families together if at all possible.”

Colyer adds, “Child safety is everyone’s responsibility.”

Garcia was being held on $2 million bail and Camarena on $1 million bail; they are scheduled to appear in court next on Aug. 23. The 17-year-old was being held in a juvenile detention center and is due in court again on Aug. 26. No pleas have been entered for the accused and Garcia has not yet been assigned an attorney, according to the Cook County Public Defender’s Office.

Garcia’s children had been taken away once before: In 2012, the state’s child welfare agency took protective custody of four of the children, including Manny, and placed them with foster parents after a neglect report, according to DCFS spokeswoman Veronica Resa.

The children were returned to Garcia in 2015 after she “complied with all DCFS requests and terms including attending parenting classes,” Resa says.

The agency also had contact with the family in February 2016, for an allegation of abuse of one of the older children, but “the report was determined to be unfounded,” she says.

Garcia’s five children are now again in protective custody and reported to be in good condition, Resa says.