Audit faults child welfare agency’s abuse and neglect investigations
Capitol News Illinois file photo by Peter Hancock
Report says understaffing at DCFS led to backlog of cases, failure to file timely reports
By PETER HANCOCK
Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD – The Illinois Auditor General’s office said Tuesday that understaffing at the state’s child welfare agency led to a massive backlog of cases of suspected child abuse or neglect during the administration of former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner. It also said the agency often failed to follow its own protocols for investigating cases and filing timely reports.
The audit report paints a picture of the Department of Children and Family Services as an agency overwhelmed by a growing volume of cases with investigators under pressure to close cases quickly, “even when they had not performed basic tasks such as contacting police and doctors.”
“There is every indication here that there are problems,” Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, a Chicago Democrat who chairs the House Adoption and Child Welfare Committee, said during a news conference shortly after the report was released.
The Illinois House ordered the audit in June 2017 when it passed a resolution that cited a number of concerns about how the agency was being managed.
The resolution specifically mentioned the 2014 shooting death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by a Chicago police officer – a case that “shed light on the inefficiencies that plague the DCFS foster care system” – as well as the death in May 2017 of 16-month-old Semaj Crosby, who was found dead in her Joliet home a day and a half after DCFS workers had visited the home to investigate a report of suspected child neglect.
In recent months, there have been even more reports of children dying in families that had previously been investigated for suspected abuse and neglect. The most recent of those involved 5-year-old AJ Freund, who was found dead in the Chicago suburb of Crystal Lake in April, less than a year after DCFS closed an investigation into suspected child neglect after finding that the allegation was “unfounded.”
The audit examined activity at DCFS between July 2014 and June 2017. That included the two-year period when the state government operated without a budget amid a stalemate between the Rauner administration and the Democratic-controlled General Assembly.
According to the auditor’s report, DCFS saw a 10.8-percent spike in the number of cases it was called on to investigate during that time.
During that time, however, there was also a sharp decrease in the percentage of cases where investigators said they found credible evidence of abuse or neglect. And in nearly two-thirds of the cases where credible evidence was found, auditors could find no documentation about whether those families had received or even been informed about available services to help them.
Meanwhile, the report indicated, the agency was unable to handle the volume of calls coming into its hotline, and in some cases it took the agency a week or more to return messages that were left on an answering machine. Investigators were also routinely assigned more new cases in a month than is allowed under a federal consent decree.
The report spells out 13 specific recommendations for DCFS to improve its handling of abuse and neglect cases, ranging from improving data collection and reporting requirements to ensuring that critical investigations are completed within the required 60 days, and that extensions on that time limit are granted only for good cause.
DCFS Acting Director Marc Smith said in a statement that the agency is committed to following the recommendations.
“Under this administration and leadership team, DCFS welcomes the auditor general's findings and is fully committed to making substantial changes in how our agency serves vulnerable children and families,” Smith said. “That is why we have already begun moving forward on these recommendations. Nothing is more important than getting this work right, and the findings show serious lapses and problems.”
“While the report covers the period from (fiscal years) 2015 to 2017, we believe that the problems plaguing DCFS are deep-seated and have existed for years,” Smith continued. “Our mission is to take all the necessary steps to overhaul longstanding policies and procedures that have failed Illinois’ children, and these recommendations are an important element of our path forward. We welcome partnerships and input from stakeholders as we move forward with that critical work."
Anders Lindall, public affairs director with AFSCME, which represents DCFS workers, said the report "identifies ongoing problems that stem largely from excessive caseloads and inadequate frontline staff in DCFS."
"Our union has been working for years to raise awareness of these problems and to stress the need for more DCFS investigators and caseworkers," Anders said in a statement. "While the agency has begun to make progress on hiring, more work remains. We welcome Governor Pritzker’s proposed budget that would add 126 staff in the coming year."