SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (WEEK) — The Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) Office of Inspector General said nearly 100 children involved with the child welfare agency died in fiscal year 2018.
The report, issued in January by Acting Inspector General Meryl Paniak, details DCFS investigations of the deaths of children involved in the child welfare system within the preceding twelve months before they died. The report details 98 child death investigated by DCFS between July 1, 2017 and June 30, 2018.
Of the 98 deaths, the following happened locally:
- Fulton: 1 (accidental)
- Henry: 1 (accidental)
- McLean: 1 (homicide)
- Peoria: 3 — 1 (homicide), 1 (accidental), 1 (natural)
- Tazewell: 2 — 1 (undetermined), 1 (accidental)
In the Inspector General’s report, the details of cases are summarized, and recommendations for change or disciplinary measures for DCFS are issued in each case. No names or exact locations are used in the reports.
Between fiscal years 2000 and 2012, 1,388 child deaths were investigated by children who were involved in the DCFS system. Between fiscal years 2013 and 2018, that number has spiked to 1,982 total cases.
“To prevent and tackle child abuse and neglect, we need to support and nurture relationships. The most
important relationship is between the child and their parents. Other relationships like those between
practitioners and parents, and between local services, are also key,” wrote Paniak in a letter to the governor and General Assembly. “Caseworkers who remain committed, engaged, and perform competently, and think creatively assure me that we can improve the lives of Illinois’ children.”
The report also details cases of children left in psychiatric hospitals past their discharge dates. In fiscal year 2017, there were 273 recorded instances of kids kept in mental treatment facilities “beyond medical necessity.” In fiscal year 2018, that number increased to 329. A federal class action lawsuit was filed against DCFS in December by the Cook County Public Guardian on behalf of 15 children impacted by this practice.
“The deaths of children in families where DCFS has involvement are profound tragedies that deeply impact too many communities. We appreciate the OIG’s report and are troubled by the findings. In the past several months, we’ve taken significant steps to better protect Illinois children including reducing caseloads, implementing new technology, building collaboration with the Department of Human Services, and moving higher-risk cases back to DCFS from private agencies,” said a DCFS spokesman in an e-mailed statement. “We will continue to review our policies and practices to ensure we are delivering needed services effectively to our most vulnerable residents. Governor Pritzker has already made clear that funding DCFS services will be a priority, approving 126 additional staff and technology upgrades after years of budget constraints. We are committed to working with the new administration to better serve our children and families.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois blasted the findings in the report, calling for major reforms at the agency.
“This report makes clear one thing – DCFS is broken. The past administration believed that problems in the agency could be covered by platitudes and public relation stunts. All the while, DCFS was failing at its core mission to protect children in our state,” said Claire Stewart, staff counsel at the ACLU of Illinois. “There can be no more time wasted. We need new leadership in the Department, leadership that is unafraid of doing the hard work and taking advice from experts to avoid a full collapse by this agency. Nearly 100 children died who were somehow connected to DCFS – nearly 100. This is not tolerable and must be fixed.”
Incoming administrations typically appoint their own agency heads upon their arrivals into office. Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration has named 21 new directors for a number of state agencies, but there is no permanent appointment yet named for DCFS as of Monday. Deborah Dyer-Webster is the interim director of the agency, which has seen heavy turnover in leadership over the past several years through multiple administrations.
“The governor believes we have a moral responsibility to provide the best possible outcomes for children in the state’s care and to protect them when no one else will,” said Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh. “After the hollowing out of DCFS, as a first step, Governor Pritzker has proposed providing additional funding for DCFS so 126 additional caseworkers can be hired and is working to ensure the department has the resources it needs to serve the state’s most vulnerable, and in the wake of this extremely troubling report, he will continue to review practices and look for ways to improve this vital work.”