By Elyssa Cherney
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Wednesday said he is committed to overhauling the state's troubled child welfare agency, vowing to allocate more resources to fix systemic problems cited in a new report that criticized some of the department's policies for keeping families together after abuse and neglect allegations come to light.
At a news conference in Springfield, Pritzker stood next to Marc Smith, acting director for the Department of Children and Family Services, as he said that reforming the department was among his administration's highest priorities.
"I am committed to carrying out that overhaul as quickly and effectively as possible and ensuring that Marc has the necessary resources and support to do that work," said Pritzker, who wore a blue ribbon on his suit in honor of National Foster Care Month. "Much of the work is already underway, and some will be completed over the next several weeks."
The governor's remarks come after the release Wednesday of a report that found systemic, structural and cultural problems with a major component of the department's work, a division that handles "intact family services." Those services are provided to families, mostly by private agencies contracting with the department, when concerns about children's well-being has emerged but the circumstances are not deemed severe enough to trigger a removal from parental custody.
The report was commissioned by Pritzker in March after several children whose parents received intact family services were killed. Pritzker said the department will implement all of the reforms suggested by Chapin Hall, a child welfare think tank based at the University of Chicago that put out the report.
"This agency and the children under its care were neglected for years," Pritzker said. "That changes right now. There is nothing more important to me as governor than protecting our state's most vulnerable people, especially our children."
Pritzker's comments, however, fell short of fully challenging the privatization of intact family services, which occurred in 2012. Nearly all intact family services -- or about 85 percent -- are provided by community-based organizations that have contracts with DCFS.
Asked if he was rethinking privatization, Pritzker noted that many states successfully employ the model but said DCFS in Illinois has not implemented accountability measures to guarantee that here.
"With the right kind of oversight, with the right kinds of policies and procedures, it can be done well," he said.
During their Wednesday address, Pritzker and Smith also announced two reforms that are aimed at improving the quality of work at DCFS.
First, the department has begun conducting an "urgent" review of more than 1,100 open cases that involve young children, Pritzker said. The review will be handled by "some of DCFS' most senior staff," and will focus on reviewing whether key safety measures were followed, according to a news release that described the action. It was started last week, a DCFS spokesman said.
In addition, DCFS is creating an eight-person team to immediately review child deaths that occur during an open investigation or when the family has an extensive history with the department. The team will quickly develop recommendations for best practices and missed opportunities that will be shared with staff, according to the news release.
"Under my administration, we will change the direction of DCFS," Pritzker said in a statement. "There is nothing more important to me as governor than getting this right."
Though DCFS' budget for next year has not yet been approved, Pritzker has recommended allocating an additional $75 million to the agency to help fund 126 more caseworkers as well as technology upgrades.
Pritzker and Smith both acknowledged that that systemic problems facing the department will take time to address in full. A report released last week by the state auditor general's office pointed to chronically high caseloads and inadequate staffing.
"One report and one press conference won't fix the long-standing challenges of this department," Smith said Wednesday in Springfield. "But I am committed to moving forward and taking steps each day to begin ... addressing the issues that are plaguing DCFS and have impacted too many lives."
Pritzker ordered the Chapin Hall report on March 27, the same day he appointed Smith as acting director of DCFS, which has seen a revolving door of leaders over the past decade. The announcement followed several highly publicized deaths of children whose families had received intact family services, including that of 17-month-old Semaj Crosby, who was found dead under a couch in her dilapidated Joliet-area home in the midst of an open case. In Chicago, 2-year-old Ja'hir Gibbons was fatally beaten on March 18, two days after a caseworker visited and reported the boy and his older brother were safe.
The Chapin Hall report identified 41 child deaths due to neglect or abuse that were investigated by the agency's inspector general between 2014 and 2018. In six of those cases, the fatality occurred while there was an open intact family services case.
The report did not include a review of the circumstances that led to the death last month of 5-year-old Andrew "AJ" Freund of Crystal Lake. His parents have been charged with fatally beating him after a long history of contact with DCFS, which had placed him in foster care for a time.
The report, conducted over a six-week period, identified key areas that hindered intact family services. Officials with organizations that provide the services told researchers that they felt pressure to keep kids with their parents, found it difficult to decline a case that was too severe and had limited options when families did not cooperate. The report also offered nine recommendations, some of which can be implemented immediately while others will take time to develop. Among the suggestions, the report said DCFS should improve supervision of the program, work with courts and prosecutors to better establish criteria for taking custody of a child and clarifying the roles and expectations for caseworkers.
Andrea Durbin, the leader of an organization that represents child welfare agencies, said she agrees with many of the report's findings and recommendations. While intact family services represents one element within the department that needs improvement, others areas need to be addressed as well, said Durbin, chief executive officer of the Illinois Collaboration on Youth.
"The system needs focused attention across all levels of care in order to achieve long-term stability," Durbin said in a statement. "We look forward to continuing this critically important discussion and finding solutions to stabilize Illinois' child welfare system in the days ahead."
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