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Child Deaths Illinois

Illinois Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, center, speaks at a news conference 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 on Tuesday in Springfield. Lawmakers are taking 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.

SPRINGFIELD — Illinois lawmakers on Tuesday took aim at the state's Department of Children and Family Services, which has been haunted for decades by deaths wrought of abuse and neglect and is in the spotlight again following the beating death of a 5-year-old suburban Chicago boy with a long history of contact with the agency.

The agency also this year has drawn scrutiny for its involvement with two other children who died, including a 2-year-old Decatur girl who police say died of starvation and neglect. 

Rep. Sara Feigenholtz stood with more than a dozen House and Senate members of a new child welfare reform caucus to propose legislation that would bolster checks and balances in the child welfare agency.

Also Tuesday, Auditor General Frank Mautino issued a review of the agency's investigative practices from 2015 to 2017. It found that while abuse and neglect complaints jumped 11%, the DCFS 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 in which a child stayed with a family after an investigation, documentation did not exist to show proper social services were provided.

DCFS has requested funding for 126 new hires in the budget year that begins July 1.

Feigenholtz's measure would set up a review of allegations of neglect or abuse in which DCFS investigators concluded there was insufficient evidence to sustain the claim, to make sure all the boxes were 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.

Records in AJ's case show he confided to an emergency room doctor in December that he had been beaten with 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.

The 5-year-old's body was found April 24 wrapped in plastic in a shallow grave near Woodstock, and his parents have been charged with murder.

"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 in a prepared statement.

Even before AJ's death, Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered a review of the agency to recommend improvements following the high-profile deaths of two toddlers. The first was Ta’Naja Barnes, 2, who died in a Decatur home 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. 

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

In Chicago, an autopsy in March found a 2-year-old boy had bruises and old rib fractures but records show DCFS workers never reported injuries despite numerous visits. Pritzker said that "gross mistakes" were made.

DCFS has for years 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, the 47-year-old Elgin Democrat was born with opiates in her system. Moeller 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, suggests DCFS has repeatedly failed to provide the necessary social services to help troubled families with problems such as drug addiction, joblessness or a lack of parenting skills.

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.'"

Feigenholtz's bill is SB193

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