System Failure: DCFS investigator's death, 500-plus hours of overtime haunt child welfare system

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Don Knight can’t wait any longer.

It’s been two years of waiting. Two years of pain. Two years too long.

Pamela Sue Knight, 59, Don's wife, died from injuries suffered Feb. 8, 2018, only four months after the Department of Children and Family Services worker from Sterling was beaten into a coma by the father of a child she tried to take into protective custody.

The safety guidelines put into place by DCFS in the wake of Pam’s death still leave workers at risk, from Don’s perspective.

Some of the root causes of bad outcomes for DCFS workers and kids in the child welfare system – overworked and undersupported DCFS caseworkers, weak safety protocols, a revolving door of caseworkers with varied standards and a state government unable to agree on even simple changes – remain, a Shaw Media Illinois investigation found.

“I think things have died off some, man,” Knight said. “I don’t know why people would forget what’s going on or what needs to be done.”

A simple system

Pam Knight was a DCFS worker based at the agency's Sterling office. A veteran of 32 years with DCFS on Sept. 29, 2017, she went to a home in the small town of Milledgeville in Carroll County looking for a 2-year-old boy who she was going to take into protective custody.

No police officers were available to accompany her there, so she went alone. DCFS workers are not allowed to carry self-defense weapons with them such as guns or Mace while on the job. But a Whiteside County sheriff’s deputy had called the boy’s father, Andrew Sucher, to warn him what was happening. As Knight was getting out of her car, Sucher, a 6-foot, 4-inch, 270-pound weightlifter, rushed out of the house and began punching and kicking her in the head.

Sucher pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in the attack and is serving a 21-year sentence at the Menard Correctional Center.

Although DCFS has made some changes to worker safety since Knight’s death, such as offering self-defense training and improving communication with law enforcement, Don Knight has proposed a numbered system for identifying high-risk cases that require police accompany DCFS investigators.

“I’ve brought this out many times to them, and I just can’t seem to get them. It’s so simple. I can’t seem to get them on board,” Knight said. “And I think this is part of the problem with the workers getting hurt.”

Knight said that as of December, he has logged 23 calls in the past two years from anonymous DCFS workers across the state with issues, including worker safety and internal agency problems. Former DCFS investigator Carlos Acosta, who was fired in the wake of the death of Crystal Lake 5-year-old AJ Freund, a case he was handling, told Shaw Media Illinois that he started to wear leather jackets when out on a case after a dog attacked him.

“Several of our investigators have suffered from dog bites, including me,” Acosta said.

A 2017 Chicago Tribune investigation found at least a dozen DCFS workers had been attacked or seriously threatened between 2013 and 2017.

It’s not the only change Knight has tried to make to the system. He has had little success getting meetings with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union that represents DCFS workers and even more frustration with state government.

A proposal dubbed Pam’s Law would provide DCFS workers the same level of protection as law enforcement officers, firefighters and even teachers. Under the proposal, a person convicted of attacking a DCFS worker could be sentenced to between four and 15 years in prison for aggravated battery.

The proposal passed the Illinois House in 2019 but was not called for a vote in the state Senate.

Don Knight said state Rep. Tony McCombie, R-Savanna, has been instrumental in guiding the bill through the General Assembly and hopes to get it passed this year.

“They didn’t even let us go ahead and vote on it,” Knight said. “So now Tony and I are going to start all over.”

McCombie said the bill may need to be revised in the Senate in order to make it to Gov. JB Pritzker’s desk.

“I think we’re there,” McCombie said. “I think we’re real close.”

In the meantime, Knight sent a letter this month to all DCFS offices in the state, telling workers and investigators how they could reach out to him if they have a concern about workplace safety.

“Management at DCFS seems to think self-defense training will be the answer to keeping field workers safe,” the letter reads. “I’m here to say it would not have saved my wife. She’d been a police officer for six years. She’d been employed in child welfare for 32 years. She was ambushed. No amount of training in self defense or de-escalation for that matter would have saved her.”

Overtime and the hotline

Despite its billion-dollar budget, the agency’s workers are needed for mandatory overtime, and their caseloads exceed what was agreed to in a federal consent decree. The burden on the workers leads to a backlog in the court system and requires families and children to frequently start from square one with the state agency.

The state placed Christine Costabile of Channahon in foster care at age 9 because her alcoholic father was unfit. She remained a ward of the state until she aged out at 18, and she had frequent contact with caseworkers.

Although her experience in the system was mostly positive, the revolving door of caseworkers made for constant adjustments.

“The one thing I do recall is losing the best case managers ever. I can’t even tell you how many we had,” Costabile said. “We’d have one and we’re like ‘Oh, she’s wonderful,’ and she’s not going to be here next month. If they’re good, they leave. That’s the one thing I remember the most.”

After years of budget cuts and 15 directors in a 17-year period, state and federal funding gave the agency an additional $128 million for 2020, and DCFS said it would hire 301 more workers as a result, including caseworkers – who manage the functions of the welfare of children and families in child welfare – and investigators – who conduct abuse and neglect investigations, home and family assessments, and court preparation and testimony.

DCFS’ budget for fiscal 2019 was $1.2 billion and will be $1.3 billion in fiscal 2020. At the end of fiscal 2018, there were 2,633 employees. The Department of Human Services for Illinois estimated it would spend almost $6.4 billion in total for fiscal 2019, with an authorized 22,527 employees.

Although Illinois’ population has been in decline, the number of child welfare investigations has climbed steadily, records show. DCFS said it conducted about 81,300 such investigations in fiscal 2018, a 20% increase over fiscal 2015.

Hotline calls to DCFS also have grown by 20% in the past five years, according to a review by the University of Illinois’ Children and Family Research Center. The hotline can receive as many as 950 calls a day. As of September, there were 106 call-floor workers assigned to take hotline calls, with eight open positions.

Reports of potential child abuse and neglect can be made through the Illinois Child Abuse Hotline at 800-252-2873.

According to the hotline review report, beginning in 2017, the agency used mandatory overtime to handle the growing call volume, although the protocol for mandatory overtime has been updated to address issues from the hotline review report.

The overtime pay needed to cover those costs is approaching eight figures for Illinois taxpayers.

DCFS overtime spending has trended up for the past three years, costing about $10 million in fiscal 2019, up from $8.6 million in fiscal 2017, records show.

Records show 27 DCFS investigators logged more than 500 hours of overtime in fiscal 2019. One DCFS investigator had 1,228 hours of overtime in fiscal 2019.

Time cards and high caseloads

In the wake of the April death of 5-year-old Freund, critics have questioned whether Acosta, a McHenry County Board member, was collecting state and county pay for the same hours.

Acosta had 25 years of DCFS work under his belt when he was fired in November in connection with a Dec. 18, 2018, investigation into abuse and neglect allegations against AJ’s mother, JoAnn Cunningham, who has since pleaded guilty to AJ’s murder.

In an explanation of any potential time overlaps, Acosta referred to the state agency’s timekeeping policies.

“We’re only paid for 7½ hours. We get an unpaid lunch. And all our contract says is that your lunch hour will be taken at the midpoint of your shift,” Acosta said. “And you don’t have to be at the worksite during your lunch hour. The established practice has been if you take a morning off, you come in after your lunch hour.”

In the past, Acosta, who was a salaried employee, used his lunch hour to attend County Board meetings, he said.

“There’s prohibited political activity during state time, which still would count during the time that I’m working. I can do whatever I want on my lunch hour,” Acosta said. “But even when you go back and look at the regulations, prohibited political activity, if I was to generalize it, implies campaigning, not governing.”

All DCFS employees, even those who are salaried, are required to verify their hours, DCFS spokesman Jassen Strokosch said. How they submit those hours may vary based on factors including what duties they perform and whether they’re union members.

“As for lunch, the master contract that covers Acosta allows employees two breaks and a one-hour lunch break for the 8:30-hour workday,” Strokosch said.

The May 2019 Illinois auditor general report found caseloads were too high for DCFS investigators, violating a 1991 federal consent decree that says investigators cannot exceed a caseload of 12 to 15 cases a month.

The American Civil Liberties Union has said that investigators working on the case of Freund, whose body was discovered in a shallow grave in 2019, were swamped with caseloads that exceeded the 12 to 15 cases a month limit.

High caseloads then can put pressure on the court system to make sure hearings are completed on time, Will County Circuit Court Judge Paula Gomora said.

“A caseworker might have a family that is centered in Will County, but a foster care placement might be outside of the county, so that particular caseworker is going from Will County to whatever county to do the home visit to make sure that the kids are OK,” Gomora said. “And, so, it’s a lot of running back and forth. So we ask them to do so much.”

The overloaded caseworkers, in turn, put pressure on families to keep things straight when a new face walks in the door from DCFS.

Melissa Tomlinson, a foster mom from Channahon, took in her foster son when he was 4 years old before adopting him at age 8.

She said her family has had some good experiences with caseworkers, but the turnover has made the process more difficult.

“I think within two months we had four different caseworkers,” Tomlinson said. “So, as you can imagine ... that can be kind of hard for people to keep track. And they don’t always give each other the best, like, reports on and off. So, like, it’s a repeat of a lot of the same information, things that kind of get lost in the shuffle.”

Don Knight, a former foster dad himself, knows that shuffle all too well in a system he’s trying to change, all while keeping alive the memory of his slain wife and dedicated DCFS worker.

“I know it’s something that’s hard to live with. And my daughter and I go through it,” Knight said. “But that’s not going to stop me from carrying on her mission. She was compassionate about kids. So am I. And I want to make sure that they’re all protected.”