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‘102 deaths is still 102 too many’: Lawmakers react to DCFS 2020 child death report

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services reported 102 child death cases last year. That’s a 17% drop from the 123 deaths reported in 2019. Still, the agency’s Inspector General, Lester Bovia Jr., says the state should never accept an average of 100 children dying.

While some have looked at the report as a positive sign for DCFS, lawmakers agree 102 deaths is still 102 too many. Bovia Jr. says the downward trend could quickly reverse without diligence and vigilance by everyone in the child welfare system. He also noted the COVID-19 pandemic adds another risk for Illinois children already in danger of abuse.

“The numbers falling down on reporting does not mean that kids are not being abused still,” said Rep. Kathleen Willis (D-Addison). “It just means that they’re in their houses and nobody sees the abuse that is happening.”

Willis says the state needs to return to a sense of normalcy for children as soon as possible. The Capitol Bureau reported on the number of calls to the DCFS abuse hotline throughout the pandemic. The data was much lower than previous years since children weren’t around mandated reporters. It didn’t take long for the numbers to rise back up once kids returned to school.

Looking for signs of abuse

While many schools moved to virtual learning during the pandemic, Willis says it’s harder for teachers to see warning signs of abuse. She also feels students don’t have the same ability to talk to friends about something bad happening at home.

“It’s hard to do that when you’re only on a computer,” Willis added. “It’s hard to do that when the person that’s abusing you is across the table from you too.”

The suburban Democrat chairs the House Adoption and Child Welfare Committee. Willis hopes to dig into ways to increase the number of mandated reporters. She also wants to crack down on follow up practices for DCFS caseworkers. While she understands the burnout for employees, Willis says no child should have to meet a new caseworker every few months.

Sen. Sara Feigenholtz (D-Chicago) says DCFS and lawmakers should use this report as a starting point for problem-solving to reduce the number of children dying. She also wants agency officials to assure that no one falls through the cracks.

“When the blanket comes off, the doors open, and the kids go back to school, who will be missing? What will we not see, and why,” Feigenholtz asked.

As an adoptee, Feigenholtz feels DCFS never gets the attention it deserves even though it’s responsible for so many children in need.

“I really believe that this agency needs a lot of love and attention,” Feigenholtz said. “There are some people who are afraid of that, but it doesn’t matter. I’m focusing on the precious cargo.”

Family First

Both lawmakers feel Family First preventative services should be used more often to help young men and women become better parents. Willis plans on bringing DCFS officials to the table to flesh out their plan to save more lives.

“We are all individually wounded when a child is injured or dies under our care. So, I want to see them succeed. I want to work with them,” Willis explained.

Representatives could allow virtual hearings for the chamber by approving the new House rules Wednesday. Willis feels that could help her committee meet on a more consistent basis.

“We have to constantly monitor, modify, and treat children like humans,” Feigenholtz said. “They’re our little treasures. We have to make some tough decisions and provide strong direction through the agencies we work with, the caseworkers, and the purchase of care agencies that we work with throughout the state to evaluate a case and provide families with resources.”

On Tuesday, the Pritzker administration announced plans to strengthen funding for DCFS in the Fiscal Year 2022 budget. However, the administration didn’t specify how much additional funding would go to the agency.

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Mike Miletich

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