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As new DCFS report highlights failures, Cook County guardian says 'inept' child welfare agency is ‘not doing its job ... at every level’

Tuesday, May 07, 2019
Chicago Tribune
by Elyssa Cherney

As new DCFS report highlights failures, Cook County guardian says 'inept' child welfare agency is ‘not doing its job ... at every level’

A new report from the Illinois auditor general slammed the state’s troubled child welfare agency for failing to follow its own policies when investigating cases of abuse and neglect, finding a hotline used to report allegations cannot handle the call volume and caseloads for staff are too high.

The long-awaited audit was released Tuesday morning, hours before a group of state lawmakers announced plans to create a new caucus aimed at reforming the state Department of Children and Family Services as it faces intense scrutiny after several young children under its watch have died in recent months.

Auditor General Frank Mautino’s report concludes that timeliness for completing investigations declined significantly between 2015 and 2017, the years examined by the audit. Though investigators are supposed to complete their probes within 60 days, the audit found 16 percent of cases in 2016 remained open after that deadline.

The report also found that, during those three years, 102 children died who had been the subjects of previous investigations of abuse or neglect. In one case, DCFS had conducted nine investigations before the child died, and the child’s family was receiving services from the agency at the time of the death.

Investigators were also slow to make contact with alleged victims and perpetrators. The audit found that an alleged victim was not interviewed within 24 hours in 29 percent of cases — even though DCFS investigators must make a "good faith attempt" to see a child within that time frame. Alleged perpetrators were not interviewed within a week in nearly a quarter of all cases.

The audit is the latest blow to the beleaguered agency, which is reeling after the high-profile death of 5-year-old Andrew “AJ” Freund of Crystal Lake last month. AJ, whose parents had been involved with DCFS since he was born with opiates in his system, was fatally beaten and buried in a shallow grave near Woodstock, authorities said. AJ’s parents have been charged with murder in their son’s death.

DCFS has struggled after years of budget cuts and a rotating door of directors for more than a decade. Marc D. Smith, the current acting director, was appointed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in March after a national search.

In a statement released later Tuesday, Smith said the agency has already started to implement the report’s recommendations.

“Nothing is more important than getting this work right, and the findings show serious lapses and problems,” Smith said. “While the report covers the period from 2015 to 2017, we believe that the problems plaguing DCFS are deep-seated and have existed for years.”

Specifically, Smith said, the agency has provided more training to hotline staff and implemented new procedures for hotline callbacks and time frames. The department is also developing a model to track which services are recommended to families, and if the families complete them.

Though the report faulted DCFS for being sluggish to close cases, Smith noted that it also found that 99 percent of cases were initiated in a timely fashion.

Reacting to Tuesday’s audit, Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert said the report confirms what many who work with the agency already know: “The investigations and intact family services program is inept, and not doing its job at every stage of a case and at every level.”

Intact family services is a program that provides short-term services to families, aiming to allow children to remain in their homes safely.

Golbert also pointed to problems with the 24-hour child abuse hotline, where calls “increased significantly,” according to the report, from 222,719 in 2015 to 252,568 in 2017.

“The hotline is unable to take calls as they are received, resulting in call backs,” the report stated. That resulted in the number of callbacks increasing “substantially,” from nearly 40 percent in 2015 to 56 percent in 2017. The audit could not assess the timeliness for callbacks because of a lack of data kept by DCFS.

“That’s not much of a hotline — that’s at best a lukewarm line or even a cold line,” Golbert said. “If the hotline was truly a hotline, when you call it, somebody would actually talk to you right then and there.”

During the three years the auditor general’s office looked at, there were 221,341 investigations involving a total of 358,545 children. More than 96,500 children were confirmed to be victims of abuse and neglect.

The most common age of children who were the subject of an abuse or neglect allegation was younger than 1, accounting for 8 percent of all investigations, the report found. Such investigations were also the most likely to result in a finding that abuse or neglect did occur.

James McIntyre, a co-founder of Foster Care Alumni of America’s Illinois chapter, attributed the rise in hotline calls to cuts to mental health services, drug and addiction placements and child care by then-Gov. Bruce Rauner during the state’s budget impasse.

The audit also found that the number of investigations handled by the department has spiked in recent years, from 67,732 in fiscal year 2015 to 75,037 in 2017. During that period, caseloads for investigators were too high, violating a decades-old consent decree that says child protective services investigators cannot be assigned more than 12 new cases per month for most of the year. The auditor found that nearly 80 percent of investigators were assigned more than 15 new cases in at least one month of the time reviewed.

Heidi Dalenberg, general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, said that investigative caseloads have fluctuated since a 1998 federal consent decree initiated by the ACLU set the required levels.

“The noncompliance periods tend to track a lack of money,” Dalenberg said. “When the department is not getting a lot of funding, that’s when they start shrinking things back.”

Despite the increased calls to the hotline, the number of child protective investigators dropped in 2016, the report found.

The audit’s origins date back long before the AJ Freund case. The investigation was ordered by the Illinois House in June 2017 following another shocking death — that of 17-month-old Semaj Crosby, who was reported missing hours after a caseworker visited the squalid Joliet Township home where, days later, the girl was found dead under a couch.

The resolution calling for the audit also cites Laquan McDonald, the teenager fatally shot 16 times by a Chicago police officer in 2014 and who was a longtime state ward before his death. That case, the resolution said, shed light on inefficiencies plaguing the DCFS foster care program, revealing “the instability and abuse Laquan McDonald experienced through his youth as he moved through the foster care system.”

As part of the resolution, lawmakers directed the audit to examine abuse or neglect investigations conducted by the department in fiscal years 2015, 2016 and 2017. They said they wanted the audit to examine how long it took investigators to close the cases, final determinations that investigators made and demographic information about the children who were possible victims of abuse and neglect.

In the wake of AJ’s death and the audit report, a group of lawmakers on Tuesday announced the creation of a new caucus to reform DCFS and improve the safety of children under its care.

State Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, a Chicago Democrat who chairs the House’s Adoption & Child Welfare Committee, is helping spearhead the movement. Feigenholtz said the caucus will consist of bipartisan members from both chambers, but did not offer a full list, saying the process is still ongoing.

“This is an issue touching the state in every corner geographically, and it is not a partisan issue,” she said. “I have people that are calling me from all over the state about cases that have come to their attention that they are very, very concerned about.”

On Monday, Feigenholtz filed legislation to establish a review process for cases involving abuse or neglect. The measure, which was filed as an amendment to an existing bill sitting in Feigenholtz’s committee, would require the deputy director of child protection to create a system for checking 5 percent of cases where allegations were not substantiated and the child is younger than school age, meaning they may not have come into contact with teachers, social workers or other mandated reporters.

The legislation also requires the review of cases where allegations were confirmed for older children, but the family has declined services or there are other reasons why the department is not taking protective custody. Moreover, the department would have to file semiannual reports with the General Assembly summarizing the cases reviewed and providing recommendations for systemic reforms.

“It builds a review process that ensures that the administrative level of the department is aware and accountable for what’s going on in the field,” Feigenholtz said.

Editorial: AJ Freund could have been saved. DCFS needs to figure out why he wasn't. »

Editorial: The search for 5-year-old AJ Freund ends in heartbreak. How could this happen? »

In 2017, the Tribune reported that DCFS employees were pushed to speed up their work, including child protection investigations. Under an initiative called “Blue Star,” workers were offered overtime pay if they closed cases in two weeks instead of the 60 days allotted by state law. The Tribune also found that a Joliet office administrator created a contest for workers who closed the most abuse and neglect cases, offering $100 and $50 gift cards.

echerney@chicagotribun

Twitter @ElyssaCherney

 

 



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