DCFS under fire for quickly closing
Child Abuse investigations
Illinois Department of Children and Family Services investigators are overwhelmed by high caseloads and are being pressured to quickly close their abuse probes, even when they have not performed basic tasks like contacting police and doctors, according to several experts and lawmakers who spoke Tuesday at a joint House-Senate hearing in Springfield.
Front and center at the 90-minute hearing was state child welfare director George Sheldon, who faced intense criticism about the recent deaths of youth who had been the subject of DCFS investigations as well as the agency’s failure to protect vulnerable children and their families.
The hearing was prompted by a May 11 Tribune report on three Cook County cases in which children died of beatings or starvation shortly after DCFS closed investigations into mistreatment in their homes, as well as the case of 17-month-old Semaj Crosby, who was found dead last month in her Joliet Township home after the agency closed four neglect probes, and was in the midst of two more.
At the hearing Tuesday, the agency revealed it had conducted several additional probes involving other youth in the same house.
State Rep. Mary Flowers, D-Chicago, said she also was troubled by the Tribune’s account of a new DCFS program called Blue Star that offers overtime pay to Cook County investigators who significantly boost the percentage of cases they close within 14 days.
“Enough is enough,” Flowers said. “Our families are suffering.”
Sheldon defended the agency but acknowledged that investigations sometimes failed and children were harmed because his workers often were not communicating properly with each other or with outside agencies and private contractors.
“We’ve got to do a better job of coordination,” Sheldon said at the hearing.
Sheldon’s testimony came as he continues to weigh whether or not to leave the agency. Last week a Florida nonprofit offered him its top job with a $210,000 annual compensation, but Sheldon said he needs until the end of this month to make up his mind.
In addition to headlines about child deaths, he is facing state ethics probes into DCFS contracts that benefited his friends and political associates in Florida, the Tribune has revealed.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Sheldon said that the Tribune reports prompted him to ask the agency’s general counsel to review whether Illinois laws should be changed to enable DCFS to retain records of past unproven allegations. The agency currently must expunge and shred most investigators’ files if it determines there is no credible evidence of abuse or neglect. That handicaps investigators because patterns of mistreatment may only emerge by analyzing the information in those “unfounded” cases, Sheldon said.
“How can our workers have a full view of what is going on in a family?” he asked, noting that Florida and most other states keep records in unfounded cases.
Heidi Dalenberg,general counsel for the ACLU of Illinois and cooperating counsel in a three-decade-old consent decree governing DCFS, expressed frustration that Sheldon was proposing new laws and a smorgasbord of improved technologies and programs. She said the agency is simply failing to conduct thorough investigations and ensure children are safe.
“It is this kind of flailing about that is not helpful,” Dalenberg said at the hearing. The agency’s entrenched problems cannot be repaired “by leaping to the first easy solution.”
‘Overwhelmed’ by cases
Danielle Gomez, a supervising attorney for the Cook County Public Guardian’s Office, which represents state wards in juvenile court, detailed a litany of recent investigations she said were botched when DCFS did not interview key witnesses or gather critical evidence. In one case the agency investigator interviewed youth in front of the alleged perpetrator, she said.
“We are seeing this a lot … I could go on and on,” Gomez said.
DCFS investigators told her staff that they were “overwhelmed” by high caseloads, Gomez added, saying: “They are sometimes in tears about the things they are unable to do, about the pressures on their caseloads.”
Stephen Mittons, a 22-year child protection investigator who heads the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 2081 union representing those workers, underscored that point with caseload statistics from March. Eleven of the 15 investigators in Rockford had caseloads well over the limit of 12 cases per investigator mandated by the federal court consent decree, Mittons told legislators.
“It’s the same all over the state,” he added. “We are short-staffed and carrying high caseloads. … I am sitting on 25 investigations and just received my 18th investigation for this month.”
One of the lawmakers questioning Sheldon, state Rep. La Shawn K. Ford, D-Chicago, separately introduced a house resolution asking the state auditor general to assess the agency’s protocols for investigating reports of abuse and neglect. That proposed audit would review DCFS investigations within the past five years.
“We have to find out why DCFS closes so many cases so fast. They are closing cases too soon,” Ford told the Tribune outside the hearing. The death of Semaj Crosby “tipped the scales. DCFS seems to be a pool of trouble,” Ford said.
Despite high-profile child deaths and repeated warnings about high caseloads, DCFS was failing to improve, said the agency’s Inspector General Denise Kane. “There are organizational flaws.”
In a Joliet courtroom Tuesday, a DCFS attorney said the agency will give some cases in Will County a second look in the wake of Semaj’s death.
The agency plans to review a random portion of the 110 cases where children remain under their parents’ care but still require services, said Susan Barker, an attorney representing the agency. DCFS typically contracts with outside agencies to provide those services. In Will County, the agency works with Aunt Martha’s and Children’s Home + Aid.
Barker told Will County Judge Paula Gomora that the agency plans to do a quality assurance review of 10 to 30 percent of the cases each of those outside agencies handles for DCFS.
Sheldon said at the Springfield hearing Tuesday that he had received his agency’s internal Quality Assurance Review and recommendations about Semaj’s case, and will release it shortly, after consultations with the Will County State’s Attorney.
“The more information that is out there, the more we can learn from these kinds of situations and the more we can make changes,” Sheldon added.
While declining to provide details of that internal report, Sheldon noted that DCFS had opened abuse and neglect investigations that referenced five children at Semaj’s home — three youth, including Semaj, belonging to Sheri Gordon, and two others belonging to a relative who lived there.
The residents at the home were being contacted by at least four units of government, state Sen. Pat McGuire, D-Joliet, said at the hearing, including DCFS and an agency contractor, Will County probation services and the region’s special education cooperative.
But DCFS had no process to amass and compile reports from those various government agencies, and was not communicating with them.
DCFS had a total of 11 abuse or neglect investigations into that household, DCFS Senior Deputy Director for Operations Michael Ruppe said at the hearing, including probes into an aunt of Semaj’s and another adult resident. Those investigations were handled by at least four different DCFS workers, Ruppe added.
Sheldon said: “When you’re not connecting these cases and you have five persons going out … each person doesn’t necessarily know what the other person did.”
Sheldon said he was working on a technology overhaul that would improve communication between workers, but he and Ruppe declined at the hearing to say when those upgrades might be implemented.
Flowers said that Tuesday’s hearing was just the first of several she plans through the summer “or maybe longer.”
As the hearing closed, she addressed her final comments directly to Sheldon.
“This one is on you — whether you leave or whether you stay, this agency is supposed to work,” Flowers said. “This needs to be fixed, and the hurt and the pain and the suffering families are going through needs to stop.”