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In wake of report on DCFS, Pritzker orders “urgent review” of 1,100 open investigations

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (WEEK) — Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Department of Children and Family Services Acting Director Marc Smith are ordering an “urgent review” of more than 1,100 open investigations in the wake of a report on the agency released Wednesday.

Pritzker said senior DCFS staff will review cases where young children are involved and certain allegations of abuse and neglect are present, zeroing in on compliance with “key safety measures.” The internal investigation is expected to turn out findings in the coming weeks.

Other immediate actions announced Wednesday include the creation of an 8-person crisis intervention team to conduct an immediate review whenever a child with an open DCFS investigation or an extensive history of past involvement with DCFS dies. Expanded training and retraining programs are also planned for child welfare workers statewide, including those contracted with a private agency.

A new DCFS training center is slated to open in Chicago in June.

“Under my administration, we will change the direction of DCFS. I am committing the full force of this office to this work. There is nothing more important to me as governor than getting this right,” said Pritzker in a prepared statement. “We have the opportunity right now to make dramatic improvements in how DCFS functions and dedicate ourselves every day to improving this work. I am committed to carrying out this overhaul as quickly and effectively as possible, and ensuring that DCFS has the necessary resources and support to do that work.”

Pritzker commissioned the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall to review the agency’s handling of critical incidents within six weeks. The review specifically targeted the agency’s Intact Family Services program, which aims to keep families referred to DCFS together.

In 2012, the Intact Family Services unit of DCFS was privatized, and around 80 percent of cases previously handled by the agency are now referred to private providers.

“However, this change was not accompanied by the rigorous approaches to monitoring quality and incentivizing best practice that characterized the privatization of foster care services in the late 1990s. Since then, a shift to decentralize supervision and oversight has disrupted a clear line of accountability and inhibited checks and
balances in the referral and case closure processes,” wrote Dana Weiner, PhD; and Michael Cull, PhD, in an executive summary of the Chapin Hall assessment.

Chapin Hall found investigators often avoid referring children for removal over fears the courts or the local state’s attorney will overrule their judgment on complex or chronic family cases. Intact investigators must approve petitions to the court.

“This results in a population of Intact cases with extensive histories, some of whom have experienced Intact previously and are not inclined to work with providers,” Weiner and Cull wrote.

In one case, Chapin Hall found an investigation was declared unfounded even when a DCP investigator overheard an adult ordering a child to “lay down.” The investigator found the child’s torso exposed and covered in welts, but the case was declared unfounded because doctors could no longer find the welts when they were taken to the hospital.

The mother also didn’t honor an informal agreement to keep her partner away from the child. The child later died.

Weiner and Cull found that while child maltreatment deaths have declined over the past five years in Illinois, child abuse and neglect cases are on the rise. Intact cases represented 15 percent of the deaths included in the Office of Inspector General’s Death and Serious Injury Reports over the past five years.

Chapin Hall also found the current management hierarchy ineffectual, and noted that two Intact cases reviewed had extensive back-histories with DCFS that were inaccessible because the records were expunged or purged.

The review also found that provider agencies are not incentivized to continue investigations more than six months, because their pay rate decreases at six and 12 months. The process to extend the initial rate is often not pursued, the review said. Many child welfare workers also noted that closing Intact cases within six months used to be a closely-monitored performance outcome for workers.

Pritzker and Smith said DCFS will seek to develop new standards for closing Intact cases in the next 60 days. They also said they would work to provide more clarity in the lines of authority within DCFS in the next 30 days, develop and implement a plan to restructure Intact services within the next 60 days, and work with state’s attorneys and courts to refine the criteria for removing children involved in complex or chronic cases.

The two also said they would work toward streamlining data gathering and organization, and directing more attention to cases where kids are at the greatest risk for severe harm.

The Chapin Hall review is one of just several looks at DCFS in the wake of high-profile deaths of children repeatedly involved with the agency, such as Andrew “AJ” Freund of Crystal Lake and Rica Rountree of Normal.

DCFS Inspector General Meryl Paniak testified on the deaths of children involved with the agency, and Illinois Auditor General Frank Mautino recently completed a performance audit of the agency.

Pritzker is also planning to hire 126 additional caseworkers in an effort to spread the burden of cases more evenly and avoid overburdening current workers. 

Read the full Chapin Hall systematic review and their recommendations for reform here. 

Tim Shelley

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