Lawmakers questioned Illinois child welfare officials Tuesday about an increase in the number of children reported to have died of neglect or abuse in the state, though agency officials argued the number partly reflected a change in the way neglect cases are counted.
The Department of Children and Family Services says 104 children died of abuse or neglect in Illinois in the fiscal year that ended in June, a sharp increase from the 30-year average of 77. Testimony from DCFS Acting Director Denise Gonzales and experts, including doctors specializing in child abuse cases, revealed a system that is beleaguered by staff shortages and poor communication. However, there were no definitive conclusions about whether that, too, might be contributing to an increase.
"If there are answers to be found, we will work relentlessly to find the answers," Gonzales told the Senate Human Services subcommittee.
Since becoming acting director last month, Gonzales ordered a review of each of the 104 cases. Most of them — 74 deaths — were classified as neglect cases, an 80 percent increase in that category since 2009. Abuse cases, meanwhile, have declined over that period.
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Gonzales said new reporting methods introduced in 2011 may account for more deaths being classified as neglect cases, where once they would have been listed as having undetermined causes.
Under the changes, DCFS categorizes the deaths of children who suffocated while sleeping as neglect if it can be proven the parents were warned of the dangers of things such as co-sleeping, having blankets and other items in cribs with infants, or allowing an infant to sleep on his or her stomach.
Co-sleeping deaths can be classified as neglect in these cases, even if the parents had not consumed alcohol or drugs.
The change was made at a time when the number of sleep suffocations was rising, but the DCFS inspector general, who also testified Tuesday, questioned the wisdom of that route.
"I don't think that's what the public thinks neglect and abuse is about," said Inspector General Denise Kane.
Kane said that should be a matter for public health authorities and pointed to a need for better public awareness.
Gonzales said the agency may re-examine the types of cases included in the neglect category.
The two lawmakers leading the hearing also questioned agency staff over the strangulation and beating death of an 8-year-old Chicago girl in July despite the fact that her case was on the radar of welfare officials. The girl, Gizzell Ford, was found dead in a home on the city's West Side. Her grandmother is charged with first-degree murder. Her father also is charged with murder for allegedly doing nothing to stop the abuse.
The girl's body was covered with old and new scratches and cuts. Prosecutors say maggots hatched in some of the cuts on her scalp while she was still alive.
Police investigators encountered squalid conditions in the home that were never reported by a DCFS investigator who was supposed to have visited the home prior to the girl's death.
The agency's regional administrator for Cook County, Arlene Grant-Brown, acknowledged at the hearing that the investigator likely just failed to report the conditions.
DCFS operations chief Deborah McCarrel noted that many of the agency's 600 child abuse investigators are overwhelmed by caseloads that for some number as many as 25.
"When a caseload gets above 12, you pretty much immobilize the worker," she said.
Mattie Hunter, a Democratic member of the Senate committee, said the number of deaths was unacceptable and that she would seek a meeting to take up the issue with Gov. Pat Quinn.
"Every single one of you all need to resign," she said. "...Right now, I don't think that our children are protected."