CHICAGO —The highly-anticipated report looking into the inner workings of the Department of Children and Family Services was released Wednesday. It was ordered by Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker after the deaths of dozens of young children in the agency’s care.
The 23-page, highly critical report by the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall only looks into the DCFS’s Intact Family Services unit, the program where children being monitored by DCFS are allowed to remain in their homes with their parents while their families are voluntarily offered services to improve the abusive situations. It is the same program in which children have died, mostly recently A.J Freund, 5, of Crystal Lake, Jahir Gibbons, 2, of Chicago and 17-month-old Semaj Crosby of Joliet Township.
Pritzker is pledging $75 million from the new budget and 100 additional staff workers to be part of the reform.
"I'm committing the full focus of this office to this work. This agency, and the children under its care, have been neglected for years. That changes right now," said Pritzker.
The report, ordered six weeks ago by Pritzker, uncovered systemic issues with the way DCFS supervises staff and oversees the 12,000 children in the program. Notably, DCFS privatized the Intact program in 2012, referring 80% of its cases to private agencies without putting in place “effective quality monitoring practices” or proper “fiscal incentives” to make the program work. It also expanded the program to include more children without increasing services or resources.
The report also found DCFS moved to what is called “a matrix model of supervision” that disrupted a clear chain of authority and accountability among staff, while also making it difficult to share information between caseworkers about previous contacts with families and the history of abuse. In some cases, the information was even deleted from the system. This was an issue found in the cases of A.J., Jahir and Semaj, all of which had multiple contacts with DCFS that were either not acted upon in a timely manner or kept from caseworkers who could not make an accurate assessment of the danger the children faced.
Marc Smith is the new acting director of DCFS. He has, among many things, the responsibility of fixing the problems identified in the report.
"We can't do this alone," said Smith. "This report is a way to collaborate with lawmakers, with the courts, and with our non-for-profit partners."
“We are absolutely in the process of doing some reorganization,” he said. “We want to ensure case managers, the people on the ground, the investigators who are in the homes of our families have the direct supervision so they can make good decisions, they don’t have to make them on their own.”
The report also found staff went to great lengths to avoid removing children from abusive homes despite the severity, complexity or chronicity of the case because they felt it would not be pursued by investigators or upheld by the court.
“Child safety is priority one,” Smith said. “I don’t want anybody in our agency to ever feel like they should make any decision that’s not based on what’s best for any individual child.”
"We have short term, medium term, and long term challenges that we have to overcome," said Pritzker. "But we can't wait for the medium term challenges and long term challenges to start addressing. We have to address all three of those categories on day one."
Most disturbing, the report found high-risk cases were simply closed when families refused to work with DCFS. Furthermore, the agency did not have a back-up plan in place to ensure the child’s safety.
The report recommends nine changes DCFS can make in the short term to address the problems including developing a protocol for closing cases and working with the courts and State’s Attorney for more complex cases; clarifying goals and expectations of the staff and making people accountable for their work; improving supervision; and putting more attention on high-risk cases.
“We’re hitting the ground in a scenario that has to be addressed with a sense of urgency, but not in a way that we’re not being thoughtful about what the needs are for the children and families that we serve,” Smith said.
Smith said the public can expect to see changes in the agency immediately because the agency has already started rolling out some of these recommendations including retraining staff on safety issues with new simulation centers.