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Illinois’ Child Welfare System May Be Worse Than Ever

The state pours $100 million annually into the system, with a proposed increase of $250 million this year, and yet it remains unable to keep staff and place troubled youths in the right places quickly.

(TNS) — During his first months in office, Gov. J.B. Pritzker promised to “overhaul” Illinois’ broken child welfare system following a report that criticized policies for keeping families together after abuse and neglect allegations came to light.

“This agency and the children under its care were neglected for years,” Pritzker said, referring to the state’s Department of Children and Family Services. “That changes right now. There is nothing more important to me as governor than protecting our state’s most vulnerable people, especially our children.”

But despite pouring at least an additional $100 million into DCFS each year — and proposing an increase of $250 million this year — the agency remains understaffed and is still failing to get troubled youths into the right places quickly, advocates say.

The agency’s troubles have been laid bare in juvenile court, where a judge ordered DCFS Director Marc Smith to be held in contempt of court seven times this year for failing to find appropriate placements for children.

“DCFS is in the worst shape it’s been in 30 years,” said Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert, whose office legally represents more than 7,000 children involved in the child welfare system. “At some point, everybody involved in child welfare — judges, providers, lawyers — has to say, ‘Enough is enough. Drastic times call for drastic measures.’”

While Pritzker is sure to be confronted with the issue by his opponents as he faces reelection, many of the problems plaguing DCFS have compounded over decades, leaving the agency to have to manage crisis after crisis.

Provisions in Pritzker’s $1.81 billion proposed budget give some players in the child welfare community hope, including the more than $99 million devoted to community-based providers, are a step “in the right direction” to “right the ship,” said state Sen. Julie Morrison, a Deerfield Democrat.

Others see the governor’s proposed spending increase as just another example of pouring funds into an agency that nonetheless continues to underperform.

“Every year, you come back and ask for more money,” state Rep. Rita Mayfield, a Waukegan Democrat, said during a DCFS hearing before the House Human Services Appropriations Committee earlier this month. “You tell us the same stories, that you’re going to hire more case managers, you’re going to address these issues, and nothing happens.

“Your budget is one of the largest budgets in the state of Illinois,” Mayfield added — DCFS’ proposed budget is the 11th largest among 55 state agencies. “And we’re just not getting our money’s worth.”

GOP lawmakers have echoed similar concerns.

“I don’t care how much money you throw at it,” said Rep. Steve Reick, a Woodstock Republican. “There are just way too many problems with DCFS that make me think that it is an agency that can’t be fixed.”

Decades of Turmoil

For more than three decades, DCFS has operated under federal court oversight due to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois calling for reform in the child welfare system.

Making slow but steady progress during the 1990s, the department then entered an era of massive turnover and controversy, with 14 different agency leaders from 2003 to 2019.

Turmoil at the top added to the chaos, with Republican Gov. George Ryan and his successor, Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich, both governing under the cloud of federal investigations that eventually led to convictions and prison time.

Democrat Pat Quinn took over following Blagojevich’s impeachment as a “sort of accidental governor,” and during his time in office, managing unfunded liability and pensions was “eating up everything,” said Kent Redfield, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

“How do we focus on modernizing the focus on state government when the sky is falling?” Redfield asked. “All this time, (Quinn) was focusing on pensions and getting the budget in shape.”

The Tribune’s “Harsh Treatment” investigation in 2014 found thousands of children had run away from or been assaulted or sexually abused at taxpayer-funded residential treatment centers.

Republican Bruce Rauner was elected governor in 2014 and went to war with the Democratic-controlled General Assembly, which left the state without a budget for more than two years.

DCFS could use federal funds to cover its in-house services, but the agency relied heavily on third-party providers for treatment, placements and mental health services. Without a state budget, those community-based service providers didn’t have active contracts with the state, leading many of them to close their doors.

This created a “huge shortage of providers” that persists today, said Morrison, who chairs the Senate Health Committee, which reviews legislation involving DCFS.

It was during that time that one of Rauner’s appointed DCFS directors, George Sheldon, set out to reform the system by moving children out of residential treatment centers and instead prioritizing specialized foster care, an idea most advocates support, said Golbert, the Cook County public guardian. But success would require a “robust system of community-based services,” Golbert said — something that didn’t exist when Sheldon dissolved contracts with residential centers, and still doesn’t exist today.

“A lot of the problems we’re seeing today really go back to that horrible decision to get rid of 500 beds before we had beds to replace them,” Golbert said. “DCFS already had a shortage of beds, and then it got 500 beds worse.”

Whether facing investigations or being inundated with state debt, Pritzker’s predecessors spent minimal time being proactive about DCFS, Redfield said. The department lacked the bandwidth to consider long-term improvements when facing the question of how to “survive the day,” Redfield said.

“In the best of states, with the best fiscal situation, with continuity and a really heavy priority on making government work, (DCFS) is a really tough agency to do a good job with,” Redfield said. “Drop that into what Illinois has looked like since the 1990s, and it’s really tough.”

‘How Dysfunctional DCFS Has Become’

Since January, Smith, the agency’s director, has been held in contempt of court seven times, all for violating court orders to find children appropriate placements in a timely manner. For a judge to take such an action is something seldom seen, said Golbert, whose office brought the cases to court.

“In the more than 30 years that I’ve been practicing in Juvenile Court, I cannot recall a single prior instance where a judge held the DCFS director in contempt,” Golbert said in a statement. “And now it’s happened [seven] times in [10] weeks. That’s how dysfunctional DCFS has become.”

The dates of the contempt orders and the subjects in the seven cases were:

  • Jan. 6: A 9-year-old girl kept locked in a psychiatric hospital since June.
  • Jan. 6: A 13-year-old boy kept in a “temporary shelter” in Mount Vernon, a southern Illinois town about 280 miles from Chicago, prior to which DCFS placed him in a utility room in an office.
  • Jan. 13: A 17-year-old boy kept locked in a psychiatric hospital since Sept. 10.
  • Feb. 17: A 16-year-old girl kept locked in a psychiatric hospital two months after she was ready to be discharged, then shuffled around placements 25 times since Nov. 18, including hospitals, emergency temporary shelters and temporary foster homes.
  • March 3: An 11-year-old girl who has been ready for discharge from a locked psychiatric hospital since April 30.
  • March 3: A 15-year-old girl kept locked in a psychiatric hospital since Dec. 6.
  • March 17: A 16-year-old boy kept in a temporary shelter for more than a year, waiting for residential treatment.

“What kind of message does that send to a child about their worth, their value, their importance?” Golbert asked in a Tribune interview. “Sometimes, with all the statistics and dollars and figures thrown around, what gets lost is that these are our children, and we need to be taking much better care of them.”

Smith declined a request to be interviewed for this article. In response to specific questions, DCFS issued a statement that read in part: “We are working aggressively addressing the decadeslong challenge of a lack of community resources and facilities for children with complex behavioral health needs, which has been exacerbated by an increased demand in social services in recent years.”

Speaking before the Senate Human Services Appropriations Committee Thursday, Smith said he was “inappropriately” held in contempt because caseworkers and private partners have been “aggressively” looking for placements for these children for months.

Children being kept in psychiatric hospitals beyond what was medically necessary was part of the impetus for the consent decree. By the end of the 1990s, instances of this did still happen, but they were “pretty unusual,” Golbert said.

Now, it’s “widespread and common again,” Golbert said, noting there were 356 children under DCFS care kept beyond medical necessity in the 2021 fiscal year. The department is “on track for another very sad record this year,” Golbert said.

Since being held in contempt of court — which carries the penalty of a $1,000 fine per day, per case, if the child is not placed — Smith and DCFS have placed five of the children appropriately, Golbert told the Tribune. The 15-year-old girl and 16-year-old boy are still awaiting placements.

On March 3, Smith told the House Appropriations Committee that his department has been “working aggressively to place all those children.” Children who receive treatment from a psychiatric hospital are often the hardest to find placements for, given the “very special type of needs of those children,” Smith said.

“They are not falling through the cracks,” Smith said. “What is happening is that we have to work very closely to develop very specific services for those children, while we’re also working with the other children that we are also placing.”

Pritzker’s Proposed Budget

Since Pritzker took office, the state has allocated funding for about 300 additional positions at DCFS. The governor’s proposed budget includes funding for 360 additional positions.

“Look, judgments need to be made by investigators and those who are front-line at DCFS,” Pritzker said at an unrelated event in Bloomington March 9. “And that means you’ve got to hire good people, more people. They’ve got to have fewer cases per caseworker.”

The Illinois Legislative Latino Caucus is pushing for the agency’s hiring efforts to prioritize Spanish-speaking caseworkers. Just under 10 percent of DCFS workers are Latino, the agency said, while Latinos make up 17.5 percent of the state’s population.

Not only does a shortage of workers mean a more intensive caseload, but it also means caseworkers are reluctant to request a second worker to join them on a house visit, something they have a right to, said Anne Irving, regional director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and liaison to DCFS. The union is “very supportive” of the push for increased staffing.

But with industries across the board struggling to attract and hire workers, especially in health care and social services, recruitment presents its own set of challenges.

The days of filling DCFS job openings with any “warm body” are “long gone,” said Jess McDonald, who served as director of DCFS between 1994 and 2003. Hiring workers without adequate training and preparation results in critical mistakes made in the field and increased turnover, McDonald said.

“Intensive training is critical,” McDonald said. “It takes about six months of intensive training — some academic and preparation work and on-the-job training — plus another six months of close supervision in the field with a training supervisor.”

The governor’s office responded to questions with a statement saying DCFS has been rebuilding trust with providers and investing in hiring as the agency works to overcome a “pandemic-driven child welfare staffing crisis.”

The administration also said a recent technology overhaul has drastically reduced a backlog for people calling the DCFS hotline, with less than 1 percent of calls requiring callbacks, down from about 50 percent of calls in 2019, the statement said.

The governor’s proposed budget appropriates $4.8 million for simulation lab training. Currently, DCFS case investigator training includes a week of orientation, four weeks in the classroom and a week in the Child Protection Training Academy, a simulation lab at UIS, said Betsy Goulet, a clinical assistant professor at the university who developed the simulation lab.

The program was originally intended to be a six-week cohort training, similar to that of a police academy, but when the program started in 2016, Goulet said DCFS didn’t feel it could “support financially” the entire six weeks.

During the simulation lab training, workers go through two different cases, including house visits and testimony before a judge. The actors give real-time feedback in character, allowing people to “make mistakes in a safe place, not out in the field,” Goulet said. More time in this training would allow workers to go through the scenarios multiple times and correct their mistakes, Goulet said.

Working for DCFS “is not good for on-the-job training,” said Goulet, a former investigator for the agency. “That’s part of my goal is that we graduate students who are way better equipped than I ever was to do this job.”

The budget also includes $99.1 million toward community-based providers, so those agencies can pay their workers closer to what DCFS pays its investigators.

“There’s going to be very close to full parity with what a state worker at DCFS earns,” said state Sen. Sara Feigenholtz, a Chicago Democrat. “They see that the most successful cases with children are when caseworkers stick with one child and their family.”

To figure out where, exactly, those funds should be dispersed, many child welfare advocates are calling for a comprehensive study of the department to determine the proportions of what types of placements the agency needs and what rates the state department needs to pay private agencies for them to be able to hire the staff they need.

Such a study would keep the agency accountable to appropriately spend taxpayer dollars, referring to a similar study published in 2020 for the Illinois Department of Human Services’ Division of Developmental Disabilities.

DCFS has not commissioned the study despite the urging of advocates.

There is still much to be done to improve child welfare in the state, advocates agree. But this year’s budget gives people hope for stabilization on the horizon.

“This is a very unstable, problematic situation that we’re in right now,” said Redfield, the U. of I. politics expert. “But there are certainly reasons to be optimistic, that we’re in a position where we start talking about not ‘How do we survive the day?’ but ‘How do we make tomorrow better?’”

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