DCFS is broken.
It’s hard to come away with any other conclusion when processing just about any issue involving the state’s Department of Children and Family Services. This month has been particularly difficult for the agency, between the fatal stabbing of a caseworker making a home visit and a Cook County judge holding Director Marc Smith in contempt of court for failing to follow orders on placement for children in the state’s custody.
And yet focusing on those dramatic developments underscores the drumbeat of depressing data revealing a crumbling agency year over year over year.
In December 2019 Shaw Media launched a print and audio series on failures in DCFS’ system (archived at shawlocal.com/system-failure), which then oversaw 17,000 children and now manages nearly 25,000. The series was in large part an examination into the heartbreaking case of Crystal Lake’s young AJ Freund, whose body was discovered in a shallow grave earlier that year. But it also leaned on the tragedy of Sea’j Crosby, a 17-month old found dead under a couch in her Preston Heights home in April 2017.
Those were just two children whose lives might’ve been saved with a fully functioning DCFS. Some 123 kids died in 2019 after a state agency had made contact.
Other shocking information from the series included case workers logging more than 500 hours of overtime — surely a sign of an understaffed, overwhelmed agency — and widespread inefficiencies and incompetence from those responsible for securing safe housing for kids in need.
This was all before COVID-19 arrived, complicating just about every aspect of American life. About 15 months ago DCFS was reporting more than 10% of its jobs were unfilled. That was after hiring hundreds of new workers near the end of the last decade, largely in response to a May 2019 Illinois Auditor General’s report showing the agency was violating a 1991 federal consent decree limiting monthly caseloads.
Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert has been among the most vocal critics. His office manages more than 7,000 children in the county’s Juvenile Court, the majority of whom are in DCFS custody. One target of his anger is the steady elimination of more than 500 residential and group home beds from 2013 to 2018. Although the agency intended to replace those with spots in therapeutic foster homes — indeed regarded as a superior option — the state never really came up with an alternative to the beds it removed.
The contempt of court situation for Director Smith is deeply telling. He isn’t wrong about the struggle to find suitable placement to get children out of psychiatric hospitals or other environments that are medically unnecessary (and significantly more expensive), but if it takes a judge to go to extraordinary lengths to make positive changes for just one or two kids, how can we ever expect to properly care for tens of thousands?
It is encouraging to see lawmakers take the most recent developments as motivation to act, but it’s also campaign season and taxpayers should be wary of those who only vaguely demand change instead of making specific suggestions, especially if the people doing the talking have been in elected office long enough to have taken action at any point while the walls were falling down around these children.
Clearly the agency needs more employees to handle the workload, policies in place to keep front-line workers safe while making visits to dangerous situations and long-term strategies to promote and retain the best workers.
Another prong is a dramatic increase in suitable placements for children. This could include better screening for foster homes and bringing hundreds of new foster families into the fold. Money is part of the equation, but it may be just as important to invest in convincing people to explore foster care in the first place. Again, retention is key because of how much effort is involved in bringing each new foster family online, but turnover is to be expected in such an emotionally charged avocation. The more good homes there are, the less any individual foster provider feels the burden to keep the entire system from breaking.
Finally, lawmakers and DCFS executives need to develop a new framework for accountability. This does not need to be an exclusively punitive approach. In fact, many DCFS workers have remarked about the difficulties of doing the job in an environment where systemic failures invite negative attention. But we simply cannot abide by a system wherein a state agency head can’t effect change until a judge wields authority and imposes fines. What checks and balances along the way might have prevented reaching this unhealthy conclusion?
Other states are not plagued by the same problems as Illinois, which means our officials would do well to study success stories and see what strategies might translate here. Part of the solution is investing in programs that stabilize families such that we might reduce the number of children who need DCFS intervention in the first place, but the fruits of such labor likely would not bear out for several years and we have an immediate crisis that needs attention.
Simply put, Illinois needs to make the health and safety of children under its care a true priority, and the current evidence is that we have along way to go before anyone can claim a good faith effort.
The DCFS is broken, yet hopefully not beyond repair. But hope doesn’t save anyone without hard work and true commitment. Let’s get to work.