Jim Dey | At DCFS, challenges terrible, choices worse

Jim Dey | At DCFS, challenges terrible, choices worse

Two weeks after sustaining withering criticism in an investigative report prepared by the state's auditor general, the state's Department of Children and Family Services was hit again last week by another negative assessment of how it does its job.

The second report came at the behest of Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who asked for the review in light of three recent deaths of children the agency was supposed to protect.

A compliant Pritzker announced DCFS will implement all of the recommendations made by experts from the University of Chicago. But he signaled that fixing this problem-laden state bureaucracy is a big job in light of its difficult job.

"I wish I could stand up here and say that there's a quick fix, that we have the magic potion that will instantly undo years of systematic issues, and will suddenly make this all right," Pritzker said.

The report specifically focused on the operations of the department's Intact Family Services unit. It's the job of the people who work there to investigate reports of child abuse and, depending on what they find, make recommendations either to allow the target of that abuse to remain in the home or be placed in foster care.

One choice is bad, and the other is worse. Complicating the matter is that those in charge will only know in hindsight whether they made a good decision or a bad one.

The volume of cases is another problem. The report noted that "Intact provides services to almost 5,000 families of nearly 12,000 children each year." Those numbers represent "roughly 14 percent of cases in which there is a child maltreatment investigation."

Sometimes, family members cooperate with DCFS caseworkers, and sometimes, they don't.

Both can lead to the ultimate disaster — death of the abused child.

In one instance, a DCFS investigator identified the mother's boyfriend as a threat to her child.

"In this case, the mother agreed to not allow her paramour around the children, but she did not honor the informal agreement and allowed the paramour further access to her children," the report states.

In another case in which a child was i dentified as having been abused, the mother was "cooperative but slow to accomplish tasks" because of "cognitive delay" and lived in a filthy, chaotic household with "numerous individuals."

DCFS has received considerable criticism for not removing the three allegedly murdered children — two boys and a girl — from their households and placing them in foster care. But DCFS officials said they emphasize keeping families intact because it's "traumatic" for children to be placed in foster care, and federal law dating back to the 1990s emphasizes avoiding foster care.

What do these mostly fractured families — usually mother and children — need to make improvements in the physical safety of their children? Everything.

"This not only includes (instruction in) basic child care (e.g. nutrition, hygiene, health, nurturing, development), but also discipline supervision and household management. Teaching and coaching must be easily accessible and easily understood," the report states.

Anything else in addition to everything?

"... financial assistance, housing, furniture, clothing, food, baby care supplies is associated with improved family functioning."

Pritzker is not wrestling with a problem peculiar to Illinois.

"Nationally, an estimated 1,750 children died from abuse and neglect in fiscal year 2016. ... nearly 45 percent of maltreatment deaths occur to children under the age of one," the report stated.

In 2016, there were 64 child maltreatment deaths reported in Illinois.

Being the good researchers they are, the University of Chicago investigators put the two numbers under statistical scrutiny. Illinois' 2016 death rate of 2.19 percent per 100,000 children is slightly better than the national rate of 2.36 percent deaths per 100,000 children.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or by phone at 217-351-5369.

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