Nelson Mandela once said “There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children”.
By that measure, Illinois appears to be failing miserably.
An analysis by WBEZ and the Chicago Sun-Times found that for the 12 months ending June 30, 2013, child deaths in Illinois caused by abuse or neglect hit a 30-year high, according to data from the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). The number of cases in Illinois topped 100 for the first time since 1989.
Further, abuse and neglect deaths in which DCFS had prior involvement more than doubled between 2010 and 2011—from 15 deaths to 34. There were 34 deaths again in 2012, 15 of them caused by abuse and 19 by neglect.
Reporting on DCFS performance comes amid news that the head of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services resigned his position after being diagnosed with cancer.
As well, state Rep. Greg Harris, who chairs the House Appropriations-Human Resources Committee, and Denise Kane, DCFS inspector general, are calling for urgent reforms within the agency to better help protect vulnerable children.
All of which would be noteworthy enough if the story was basically one of “state agency suffers unexpected crisis while watchdogs call for fix”. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
Instead, the real story is along the lines of “agency charged with protecting children experiences decade after decade of failures”.
Last year, the Chicago Tribune reported more than 200 children with prior DCFS involvement were slain from 2000 through 2011. And although they often fly under the radar, Illinois experiences a steady stream of stories of children found harmed or killed because investigators either missed warning signs, failed to follow up or were spread too thin because of budget cuts.
Worse, Illinois is hardly alone in such matters. Few government agencies across the country have as dismal a record of failing to fulfill their mission as the various state-level child protection services. From California to New York, Texas, Florida and beyond, state after state struggles to meet their basic obligations in protecting defenseless children.
Taken together, it’s a national crisis of unimaginable proportions.
Here in Illinois, things looked to be taking a positive turn two years ago when Gov. Pat Quinn hired Richard Calica to oversee DCFS. Called a “champion for children, Calaica came with high marks and a no-nonsense attitude about the job.
For her part, Inspector General Kane is calling for a series of much-needed fixes, including better coordination between police and child-welfare workers and shifting the hours that DCFS investigators work so they can have more interaction with families.
However, it’s difficult to find much hope in this latest round of bad news, calls for reform and leadership turnover, especially since we’ve been here before.
Undoubtedly, DCFS is staffed with a high number of competent, committed professionals who go out every day and put themselves and their agency on the line in service of protecting children and families who need it most.
But if history has proven one thing, that alone isn't enough.
What’s needed is a deeper realization that Illinois—or any state, for that matter—has few if any obligations more important than fixing a broken system whose failures can result in children themselves paying the ultimate price.
Once again, the alarm bells in Illinois are ringing.
We must find a way to answer them correctly this time.