BELLEVILLE — An average of 100 children die each year despite Illinois Department of Children and Family Services involvement with their families, even after pledges to make improvements in the aftermath of tragedies.
"This consistent number of child deaths shows that the State of Illinois is failing to improve and ensure the protection of children, even when it knows they are at risk," Meryl Paniak, the acting inspector general of DCFS, wrote last week to state officials.
Lawmakers had asked Paniak's opinion as they look for solutions to the problems within DCFS -- again.
They had already called for changes to the agency, which can guide parents to drug and alcohol treatment or take children out of their home if it isn't safe. And DCFS already promised reforms.
They made that promise in 2017, the same year that 2-month-old Matthew Elkins died on a mattress he shared with eight siblings and his parents in their New Douglas home, where the rooms were filled with hundreds of bags of garbage.
Then, 2-year-old Kane Friess-Wylie died in Belleville.
Then, 6-year-old Liam Roberts in Jerseyville.
Their families had all been reported to DCFS for suspected abuse or neglect before the boys were suffocated, beaten and starved in 2017.
DCFS officials have been saying for years that the agency needs increased staffing to take care of Illinois' most vulnerable kids. Now, the request for the budget year that starts in July includes the largest increase the agency has seen in 20 years and a plan to add 126 employees.
Marc Smith, DCFS' new director, said it will give investigators smaller caseloads and better oversight with more supervisors.
But some lawmakers and child advocates think the state should be investing in the foster care and adoption systems. They recently questioned caseworkers' judgments to keep children like Liam, Kane, Matthew and, most recently, AJ Freund with their parents when there were multiple reports of abuse in some cases.
Authorities believe AJ, of Crystal Lake, was beaten to death April 15, months after DCFS decided the last abuse allegation against his parents was unfounded.
There also is the case of 2-year-old Ta’Naja Barnes, the Decatur girl police say was allowed to starve and freeze to death by her mother and mother's boyfriend in February.
DCFS interim director Debra Dyer-Webster at the time said the agency was “devastated” and working with law enforcement to investigate. “We have a responsibility to the children and families we serve to provide the best possible care,” she said, “and we are committed to understanding where we come up short and striving to do better.”
The agency said Ta’Naja had been removed from the care of both her mother and father at different times because of abuse allegations. DCFS involvement began in December 2017, and a judge ordered the case closed in October, after the girl had been returned to her mother.
Why kids aren't removed from home
For years, Illinois has taken the least amount of children into state care nationally, Danielle Gomez told legislators at a hearing last month.
"I don't know that it's always a good thing," said Gomez, an attorney at the Cook County Public Guardian, representing mostly children in DCFS care. "I think we need to look at where it is that we're setting that bar for when children need more protection and need to be in care."
The front-line staff understand that the cases with the highest risk to children are the ones where they stay with their parents while the agency continues to check in on them, according to Anne Gold, DCFS' associate deputy for child protection.
The investigators have to try to decide whether there is an "urgent and immediate necessity" to take children out of their homes, she said. They have to demonstrate "reasonable efforts" were made to keep the family together.
"That's the expectation that we have to meet when we come into a courtroom," she said under questioning at the hearing. "And if the court does not feel that we've met those standards, those children will be returned home in spite of the fact that we initially removed them."
One of the legislators supporting more resources for state care options, state Rep. Anna Moeller, D-Elgin, said she saw herself in 5-year-old AJ Freund's story.
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Both were born exposed to opiates because their mothers used drugs while they were pregnant. Both were taken into protective custody by DCFS. But only AJ returned to his mother -- after he was born with the drugs in his system and again, years later, after he told a doctor, "Maybe someone hit me with a belt. Maybe mommy didn't mean to hurt me."
"We need to understand how the system failed this child so that we can make the appropriate changes," Moeller said during the recent legislative hearing. "... No one wants to be in the situation where we're hearing about another child being murdered by their parents because DCFS felt that that was the most appropriate place for them to be."
Gold, the associate deputy for child protection at DCFS, acknowledged last month that what AJ told the doctor about being hit with a belt was a red flag and a "missed opportunity" to ask more questions. Before confiding in the nurse, AJ told the caseworker the family's dog gave him a bruise on his hip.
On Tuesday, Moeller and state Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, D-Chicago, announced a new caucus on child welfare reform and filed a piece of legislation to add more accountability for caseworkers who make those calls. The bill would require DCFS administrators to review about 5% of unfounded cases involving children who are 5 years old or younger, which means they aren't in school where teachers might be able to spot signs of neglect.
DCFS has been investigating its faults in cases like AJ's and making recommendations to do better each year for two decades, since the General Assembly created the Office of the Inspector General.
Still, children are dying.
Before AJ, Liam, Kane or Matthew, it was 4-year-old Emily Rose Perrin in Dupo, whose family called her Princess.
DCFS had received 10 reports of suspected abuse by the time Emily died April 10, 2016, a day before her 5th birthday. Her mother was accused of smothering her.
An internal report about the case that was released to the Belleville News-Democrat through a public records request in 2017 criticized the caseworker for encouraging "a consistent medication and therapy regimen for family members" instead of taking more serious steps like obtaining a court order or custody.
In budget year 2018, the latest studied by the Inspector General, 98 children died after their families had contact with DCFS. Their cases were scrutinized for possible errors by DCFS out of the agency's 81,278 total investigations of families in that time.
So far this year, there have been 103 deaths of children following DCFS involvement, according to numbers provided by acting Inspector General Paniak.
The strain on DCFS
In her May 3 memo to state officials, Paniak stated that the recommendations from the Office of the Inspector General have not always been accepted by DCFS directors.
Media attention and analysis of DCFS' work, excessive caseloads and unrealistic expectations for investigators have made the job overwhelming, she added.
During the state budget impasse, most investigators' caseloads violated a federal rule that limits the number of investigations they can take on each month, according to an audit released Tuesday by the Illinois Auditor General's office. For nine months of the year, they can't have more than 12 assignments. For the other three months, the limit is 15.
Gold said the average caseload today is 12 investigations, but some staff are up to 15. "And those are the areas where DCFS is looking at hiring staff," she said.
When the state went nearly two years without a budget and the number of DCFS investigators declined, about 79 percent of them had more than 15 new assignments in at least one month they worked, according to the audit. The agency monitors caseloads across the state on a monthly basis now, Gold said.
DCFS has also seen 12 directors come and go over the last 10 years. Smith has only had the title since April 15.
"This committee has heard the words 'new director' far too often," he told legislators last month. "You have heard year after year that this department is facing significant challenges.
"I take on this role with humility to learn from the past but also with determination and belief that we can and must do better."
The Auditor General gave DCFS 13 recommendations to improve. More guidance is coming; the experts from Chicago's Chapin Hall Center For Children, who Gov. J.B. Pritzker asked to review DCFS, have until May to give their advice on the changes it needs.