Illinois lawmakers stepped up on Tuesday to take aim at failures in the state's child-welfare agency, haunted for decades by deaths wrought of abuse and neglect that state officials too often are too poorly resourced or too poorly managed to prevent.
Rep. Sara Feigenholtz stood with more than a dozen other House and Senate members of a newly formed child-welfare reform caucus with legislation to bolster checks and balances in the Department of Children and Family Services.
Reeling from criticism of its handling of cases in which three children under its watch have died this year, DCFS took another hit on Tuesday. Auditor General Frank Mautino issued a review of the agency's investigative practices from 2015 to 2017, finding that while abuse and neglect complaints jumped 11%, its hotline put callers into voicemail more than half the time, caseloads of investigators regularly exceeded limits set by a federal consent decree, and in more than three of five cases reviewed, there was a lack of documentation showing that when a child stayed with a family, there were proper social services provided for the family.
Feigenholtz's measure would set up an ongoing review of allegations of neglect or abuse in which DCFS investigators concluded there was insufficient evidence to sustain the claim, making sure all the boxes are checked.
"We want to make sure that there are other sets of eyes on these cases that are so difficult," said Feigenholtz, a Chicago Democrat.
It was a key missed piece in the case of Andrew "AJ" Freund of Crystal Lake, the 5-year-old whose parents are charged with murder after his body was found April 24 wrapped in plastic in a shallow grave near Woodstock in suburban Chicago. Records in AJ's case show he confided to an emergency-room doctor in December that he was beaten by a belt, but a DCFS administrator conceded last week that the information was missed when the agency ascribed AJ's bruising to a playful family dog and closed the complaint in January.
"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," DCFS Director Marc Smith said of Tuesday's developments in prepared statement.
Even before AJ's death, Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered a review by the University of Chicago's Chapin Hall research center to recommend DCFS improvements. That came after the deaths of a 2-year-old Decatur girl whose mother is charged with her murder after the girl was returned to her from foster care and a 2-year-old Chicago boy whose autopsy showed bruises and rib fractures never reported despite numerous DCFS visits with the boy.
For years, DCFS has emphasized keeping biological families intact, when possible, but given the recent record, a change of focus might be in order, said Rep. Anna Moeller. Like AJ Freund, the 47-year-old Elgin Democrat was born with opiates in her system but was taken from her biological mother and reared by her grandparents.
"Our main priority must be what is best for the child, even if that means removing him or her from their parents," Moeller said. "We need to support and improve our foster care system and our adoption care programs. We need to provide appropriate resources so DCFS can do its job."
The audit, ordered by the House in June 2017 because of similar problems, suggests that DCFS has repeatedly failed in following through on a key step to keeping troubled families intact — providing the social services necessary to help those families past problems — drug addiction, joblessness, or a lack of parenting skills, for example. The audit reported that investigators often did not follow DCFS rules by recording the "Level of Intervention" accorded to families they visit. Of the cases auditors reviewed where there was credible evidence of abuse or neglect, 43% involved inaccurate intervention levels.
There was no listing for services recommended in 11% of cases and in 26%, the listing was "No Service Needed," a statistic which James McIntyre, co-founder and board president of the Illinois chapter of Foster Care Alumni of America, said is telling.
"What that says in normal-people talk is we left families alone, we left families stranded," McIntyre said. "We let that kid know that their voice does not matter, and that although yes, abuse is wrong, we as a state said, 'OK, we don't need to offer services. We don't need to offer support."