Illinois’ child-protection agency issued a 384-page report this week that revealed in excruciating detail what already was obvious.
State child-protection workers fail too often and at too high a cost.
“We, Illinois, must do better. We need to do more to support families early on, before they get into deep trouble. But when families are broken, we need to act decisively to protect children,” wrote Meryl Paniak, the acting inspector general at the Department of Children and Family Services.
That’s hardly a surprising observation. Neither is it surprising that the inspector general didn’t really have much to propose in terms of doing better other than the usual prescriptions — better training of caseworkers, smarter oversight by supervisors and smaller caseloads.
DCFS is asked to do an impossible job — fix people who have many, many severe and chronic problems — what the agency calls “contributing factors in the family crisis.”
“The primary factors we have observed this year, not surprisingly, are substance abuse, domestic violence, behavioral health, paramour involvement, poverty, chronic neglect, excessive physical discipline and prior involvement with DCFS,” Paniak stated in her report.
But that’s not the entirety of the problem. Giving an impossible job to a dysfunctional bureaucratic agency further aggravates already-pathetic circumstances. No wonder DCFS directors come and go like clockwork.
That’s why what DCFS tries to do — and mostly achieves one way or another — is keep potential disasters to a containable level. It’s when it fails to avert disaster and the bodies start piling up that the public becomes aware of the stakes of failure.
Think Andrew “A.J.” Freund, the 5-year-old suburban Chicago boy who was murdered by his parents last year after DCFS, unfathomably, overlooked injuries that justified removing the boy from the hellhole that passed for his home.
He’s not the first to die under circumstances that could have been avoided. He won’t be the last. He is, unfortunately, just the latest.
The Freund scandal, as these kinds of cases always do, unleashed a firestorm of concern and anger about how DCFS does its job.
In addition to the parents facing murder charges, two DCFS workers have been targeted for dismissal.
But over time, the outrage dissipates. Then something like what happened to A.J. happens again.
The DCFS study revealed that there were 123 child deaths over the past year involving children who had had prior contact with state child protection workers.
That’s a hideous number, the highest since 139 child deaths in 2005.
As bad as it sounds, the numbers are not quite as bad as they could be.
The causes of death cross the board.
There were 24 homicides, cases like that of poor A.J.
There were 37 listed as accidental, 34 by natural causes and seven from suicide.
Another 21 were reported as undetermined.
Suicide? Undetermined? What horror stories do those words hide under a shroud of vagueness?
Of the 24 homicides, nine died from blunt trauma due to child abuse, 11 from gunshot wounds, one from exposure to the cold/environmental neglect and three from carbon-monoxide intoxication.
Their deaths came at the hands of mothers, fathers, other relatives, boyfriends and girlfriends.
One child died as a consequence of contact with a police officer while nine perpetrators are unknown and, as a consequence, their cases unsolved.
Of the 37 accidental deaths, 12 were from asphyxia/suffocation/sleep-related and another five came from blunt trauma injuries.
Other accidental deaths included two from drug overdoses, one from hanging and one from a gunshot wound.
Of the 24 homicide cases, 10 were from Cook County. But area counties also were represented — Champaign (one), McLean (two), Macon (one) and Peoria (two).
Of the 123 deaths, 49 were from Cook County. But six, the second-highest number statewide, were from Champaign County. In addition to the one homicide, one was undetermined, two were accidental and two were natural.
Cold as they are, those are the numbers that reflect the harshness of life, the meanness of desperate family members and the state’s inability to do as much as it would like about either.