What to Know
A study commissioned by Pritzker revealed agencies deluged by red tape, and workers who lack adequate oversight
The study also revealed that private providers get paid less money if cases remain open after six months
Governor Pritzker has called for a $75 million increase in DCFS funding and 126 new caseworkers
Governor J.B. Pritzker is promising swift action after receiving a critical new report which portrays the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services as an agency beset by red tape, where workers feel pressure to keep families together, lack adequate oversight, and are blocked by internal procedures from sharing critical information about endangered children.
“There is nowhere in Illinois government that is more hollowed out than DCFS,” Pritzker told reporters at the capitol Wednesday. “And there is nowhere in state government where those cuts have done more damage.”
Pritzker commissioned the study from the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall Center just six weeks ago.
“DCFS is going to have to address structural, procedural, and cultural systemic issues,” says Dr. Dana Weiner, a co-author of the report which targeted the agency’s “Intact Family Services” program, where at-risk children are allowed to stay in their parents’ homes.
That program services almost 5,000 families with nearly 12,000 children each year, or about 14% of all cases in which maltreatment of children is alleged.
Another 17,465 children of the 23,745 involved with potential abuse investigations who remain in their homes are not a part of the Intact program. The study says this may be because the families are addressing their problems, have declined help, or because the severity of the problem does not merit an Intact referral.
The Chapin Hall report found that Intact program cases constituted about 15% of 41 deaths examined by the agency’s inspector general. The study found that maltreatment-related child deaths in Illinois have actually declined every year since 2014, despite increases in rates of abuse and neglect.
Among the report’s findings, investigators said workers faced expectations of keeping children in homes, and pressure to close cases within six months.
“Some providers report that when they cannot engage a high-risk family, they may simply close the case,” the report stated. “These closures may be accompanied by hotline calls to notify DCFS of the planned case closing, but this is insufficient for ensuring the children’s safety.”
That term, “failure to engage,” could mean everything from a failure to return investigators’ phone calls, to a refusal to answer the door.
“There probably needs to be a great deal of attention on those cases before they are closed to decide what else could be done to stabilize or address the needs of the children in that family,” Weiner told NBC5. “I was surprised there was not a protocol directing attention to those high risk cases before they were closed.”
Critics said the report was on target, but pointed out well-known flaws in the DCFS structure.
“It’s basically a bureaucratic mess,” says Charles Golbert, the Illinois Public Guardian. “And we’ve known that for a long time.”
Golbert said private providers have no incentive to keep cases open until problems are resolved.
“They actually get paid less money if the case is still open after six months,” he said. “It makes no sense—it puts bureaucracy and artificial timelines ahead of child safety.”
The agency’s new director suggested he would end any policies which produce artificial deadlines.
“If there is pressure to close cases, I will alleviate that,” Mark Smith told NBC5. “The pressure and focus should only be on what’s best for the individual family that you’re working with.”
Golbert noted low pay and high turnover at DCFS, where ironically, some of the highest turnover has occurred in the director’s office.
“DCFS has had 13 directors in the last ten years,” he said. “I think it’s important that the director actually stays there.”
Smith, one of Pritzker’s first appointments after taking office, noted his Illinois roots and suggested he is in it for the long haul.
“I’m dedicated to this position,” he said. “And I’ll be here as long as I can effectively serve.”
Speaking with reporters Wednesday, the governor noted he has included a $75 million dollar increase for DCFS in his upcoming budget, and is asking for 126 new caseworkers for the beleaguered agency.
“What I can promise you is, that a day will not go by in my administration where we are not thinking about, and making real advances forward to try and protect these children across the state,” Pritzker said. “It is a tragedy, and it’s a tragedy that is unacceptable to me!”