Listen to this article

When it comes to child protection services, the cost of failure can be heartbreaking.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker made news last week when he visited Decatur in the aftermath of the death of a child whose care was supposed to be safeguarded by the state's family services department.

The death of 2-year-old Ta'Naja Barnes represents another one of those stomach-turning stories about a child left unattended for an unfathomable period of time, the consequences of which were the child's death and, once the death was revealed, public outrage.

How could such a thing happen, the public wonders?

It's a great, but simple, question — the process by which the state was supposed to intercede on the child's behalf failed miserably.

She died Feb. 11 from a combination of cold, malnutrition and neglect by her mother and father. The parents have been charged with murder, which is no surprise.

What is surprising is that the state's Department of Children and Family Services had returned the child from foster services to the parents and closed their case. In other words, the DCFS bureaucracy had concluded that whatever problems plagued the child's parents had been resolved, and they bet Ta'Naja's life on their conclusion.

The bureaucrats lost their bet. Of more importance is that, because the bureaucrats reached the wrong conclusion, the child lost her life.

The Decatur incident was followed about a month later by the death of another child, a 2-year-boy. Ja'hir Gibbons was allegedly beaten to death by his mother and her boyfriend, who both have been charged with murder.

It turned out that a caseworker who attested to the child's well-being two days before his death had filed a false report about conducting a home inspection designed to protect children like Ja'hir.

These child deaths have revived the usual talk that accompanies incidents like this — that DCFS is a problem-plagued agency that must be fixed. In other words, critics suggest, the proper combination of resources and management oversight can generate a resurrection of DCFS from an unmanageable bureaucratic quagmire with overworked, indifferent and incompetent employees into a finely tuned child-protection machine.

Critics note that DCFS has had 12 directors over the past decade, suggesting that is a sign of weak leadership. It is, but it's also a sign that this bureaucratic leviathan is borderline unmanageable, to the point that those individuals put in charge have a brief shelf life because of the challenges of the job.

The fact that DCFS has had 12 directors in 10 years probably means it will have another 12 directors during the next 10 years.

DCFS deals with individuals and families who suffer from a variety of social ills — poverty, drugs, violence, lack of education, to name just a few — that are paralyzing. Its employees, who routinely encounter physical danger doing their jobs, run the gamut from highly competent and dedicated to lazy and disinterested. Its resources are naturally limited, because the resources of almost every entity, public or private, are limited.

Pritzker, like all public officials, promises to solve the problem, bragging about the new director he's bringing in and the additional caseworkers he'll hire.

But history shows that won't be enough — that from time to time, avoidable tragedies like those that claimed the lives of these two children will re-occur.That's a sickening conclusion to have to reach. But the history of this agency makes it as unavoidable as it is inevitable.