Ta'naja Barnes

Ta’Naja Barnes is shown. Her mother and a live-in boyfriend are charged in the death of the girl. 

SPRINGFIELD – Some Illinois lawmakers have begun calling for an overhaul of the state’s child welfare agency, arguing that it has been handed too many responsibilities to handle any of them properly.

Those comments came Tuesday during a Senate budget hearing for the Department of Children and Family Services, and they came against the backdrop of at least three high-profile deaths of children who, at one point or another, had been in the custody of the agency. Those include Ta’Naja Barnes, 2, who police say died of starvation and deprivation in Decatur on Feb. 11. The state agency had taken Ta’Naja and her younger brother into foster care before returning them to her mother and mother’s boyfriend, who are charged with murder and have pleaded not guilty in the case.

“I do not believe anymore that this agency can function as it’s currently legislatively comprised,” Sen. Chapin Rose, a Mahomet Republican, said during the hearing.

DCFS is mainly responsible for the protection of children who are victims of abuse and neglect. That includes providing foster care services, adoption services and family services aimed at preventing children from having to be removed from their homes. It also includes coordinating a wide range of medical, mental health and other social services for those children and families.

Since 2012, however, most of the family preservation services DCFS oversees – what the agency refers to as “in-tact” services – have been provided by outside nonprofit agencies that contract with the state. In the wake of recent child deaths involving families that were receiving those services, many lawmakers, as well as child welfare advocates, have begun questioning whether employees of those agencies are receiving enough training and oversight.

In Ta’Naja’s case, DCFS had contracted with a Decatur nonprofit, Webster-Cantrell Hall, to provide foster care and services. Webster-Cantrell has referred requests for comment to DCFS.

A timeline of interactions in Ta'Naja's case shows that she was taken into DCFS custody in December 2017. Ta'Naja went into custody of her biological father, who lives in Springfield, in March, but was put back into foster care in June after allegations of abuse against him, which he has said were unfounded. She was returned to her mother, Twanka L. Davis, and mother's boyfriend, Anthony Myers, in August. 

Ta'Naja's younger half-brother had been returned to Davis and Myers in March. The case was closed by a judge in October following the recommendation of Webster-Cantrell.

Baby TALK, a Decatur agency that helps with early childhood development, had made a hotline call to DCFS in November with concerns about Ta'Naja, but a hotline calltaker found that the allegations did not constitute medical neglect, and no further investigation was pursued. 

The most recent child death connected with DCFS occurred March 18 when 2-year-old Ja’hir Gibbons, of Chicago, was beaten to death just two days after a case worker from a private agency conducted a home visit. Ja’hir’s mother, Brittany Hyc, has been charged with a felony count of endangering the life of a child, while her boyfriend, Dejon Waters, has been charged with first-degree murder.

According to a DCFS Inspector General’s report released in January, 98 Illinois children died during the past fiscal year within 12 months of having been involved in the state’s child welfare system – a number that was about average for the past 10 years.

“This agency has to be turned upside down and reconstituted in a thoughtful way,” Rose said. “Let’s sit down and have the honest conversation about breaking up DCFS and reconstituting something that actually works.”

State Sen. Julie Morrison, a Deerfield Democrat, also suggested DCFS has too many responsibilities, pointing to the fact that the agency is also in charge of licensing and oversight of day care facilities.

“I’m just going to say this to anybody who will listen to me: Let’s get it out of DCFS,” Morrison said. “We should not be a licensing agent for Bright Horizons and day cares. We have enough to do. Let’s pick that up and move that.”

DCFS Interim Director Debra Dyer-Webster said Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s budget request is intended to address many of the agency’s needs. It calls for total spending of $1.26 billion in the upcoming fiscal year, a $75 million increase over this year’s budget. That would be the largest single-year increase the agency has had in more than 20 years.

Much of the increase would be used to hire 126 additional investigators and case workers to ease the workloads on staff in local and regional offices around the state.

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“These are the case workers and investigators on the front line, working directly with children and families,” Dyer-Webster told the committee.

The budget request also includes about $26 million to design, build and implement a new, federally mandated software system to replace the agency’s 30-year-old system.

But Sen. Andy Manar, a Democrat from Bunker Hill, questioned whether the $75 million increase the administration wants would be enough to address the agency’s needs.

“The $75 million is the single biggest increase we’ve had in over 20 years, but it is only a first step,” said Royce Kirkpatrick, DCFS’s acting chief financial officer.

Manar, however, said he would have preferred the agency submit a request showing everything it actually needs.

“We recite the names of dead children in this committee hearing every year,” he said. “So why didn’t the department walk in the door today with the request that is necessary to operate the department for the coming fiscal year?”

Kirkpatrick said the agency is waiting on a report from a child welfare task force that the General Assembly established last year, which is supposed to make comprehensive recommendations about compensation rates for outside agencies. That report is due to be released in January 2020.

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