CHICAGO — Caseworkers tasked with helping thousands of Illinois' most vulnerable kids face pressure to keep families together — even after evidence of abuse or neglect has emerged — and have limited options for dealing with parents who won't cooperate, according to a report released Wednesday.
The report, ordered by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in March, examines systemic problems that are challenging the agency's use of "intact family services." Those services, which are provided mostly by private agencies to about 5,000 families every year, are available to parents who have been investigated by the Department of Children and Family Services for mistreatment but retain custody of their children. In most of those cases, the department's investigators have substantiated the allegations, but the problems are not deemed severe enough to warrant the removal of the child to foster care.
Yet the organizations who provide these services told researchers they sometimes feel like their hands are tied. They raised the concern that some of the cases they receive are "too complex, too severe or too longstanding" for them to handle but that it's difficult to decline a case or question the appropriateness of such referrals, said Dana Weiner, a lead researcher of the six-week study. The caseworkers also reported that they didn't believe judges, prosecutors or department investigators would support more intensive interventions if they petitioned for it.
Families are also not required to accept the services, which can range from mental health counseling to parenting classes. Supporters of intact services note that removing a child from relatives and finding a foster care placement is a traumatic experience that should be avoided when a child's well-being is not compromised.
"The intact providers do their best to serve the families that they are assigned with the resources that they have available to them," said Weiner of Chapin Hall, a child welfare think tank based at the University of Chicago that put out the study. "But I think that the expectation that removals will be avoided sometimes discourages them from applying critical thinking to the current safety concerns and the best course of intervention for a family."
Pritzker commissioned the report on March 27, the same day he appointed a new acting director for 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.
In February, Ta'Naja Barnes, 2, died of starvation and neglect in a Decatur home. According to a DCFS timeline a hotline call alleging neglect was made in 2017, and she was placed in foster care twice. Two additional accusations were not substantiated by DCFS, the agency said.
Her mother and the woman's live-in boyfriend face charges. The Illinois House of Representative Adoption and Child Welfare Committee held a hearing on the death.
DCFS Acting Director Marc Smith said he is dedicated to improving intact services and will begin implementing reforms within the next 60 days to help intact workers, investigators and supervisors. Those workers will be retrained in safety enhancement protocols, Smith said. Additionally, staff members who were identified as playing a role in some of the previous high-profile cases will receive additional support starting next week, including training in a simulation lab.
"We will make sure that the message is clear: If the child is unsafe, we don't want there to be any hesitation about removing a child," he said.
Nearly all intact family services — or about 85 percent — are provided by community-based organizations that have contracts with DCFS. The caseworkers are only supposed to have 10 open cases at a time, the report said. When possible, the department retains the highest-risk cases to address in-house.
The Chapin Hall report identified 41 child deaths due to mistreatment 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 previously placed him in foster care for a time.
The Chapin Hall report did look at three recent deaths of children whose families had received intact family services. It does not name the victims in those cases, but does offer details about one in which a DCFS investigator saw a child's torso that was "covered in welts." But the investigator did not substantiate the allegations of abuse because "hospital staff could no longer locate the welts the investigator had already seen," the report states. The report did not say how long it took the investigator to obtain a medical evaluation. Because the abuse was not substantiated, the child stayed with the family, and the case was never brought to court for possible removal of the child.
DCFS in Illinois has the lowest foster care entry rate in the country, according to the report. That was achieved by a number of strategies starting in the late 1990s aimed at keeping children with families that reduced the number of kids in foster care from more than 50,000 to about 15,000 today, Weiner said.
Intact family services is one way DCFS has kept the number of children in foster care down. In 2012, the department privatized intact services as it faced budget cuts. But the agency did not implement performance or financial incentives to ensure the quality of services being delivered, the report said.
After privatization, the department saw a surge of deaths in homes that were receiving intact family services from the contract agencies, many of which are nonprofits, the Tribune reported in 2017. The Tribune found that 15 children had died between 2012 and 2016 as their families were given intact services compared with only one such child death under the program from 2007 through 2011.
Weiner said another troubling conclusion from the new report was that service providers often have to close cases, without a procedure for notifying the department, if parents are not cooperative. In those situations, caseworkers can call the child abuse hotline to file a report, but there's no guarantee the department will follow up.
That situation arose in August 2018 when 10 children, ranging in age from 3 months to 16 years, were left alone in a Little Village apartment without working smoke detectors and killed in an early-morning fire. The mother of six of the children had been investigated by DCFS 22 times for abuse or neglect and declined intact family services in 2014, according to a memo from the inspector general's office. Over the years, the mother had been investigated for providing inadequate supervision, poor school attendance by the children and possible criminal activity. All of the reports were unfounded.
"Intact family services is meant to meet the needs of potentially the highest risk group of children and families," Weiner said. "When one of those families is referred for intact family services and can't be engaged, the idea that then there could potentially be no further contact with that family ... is alarming and needs to be addressed by the department."
The report offered nine recommendations to improve intact services, some of which could be implemented immediately while others dealt with longer-term solutions. Among the recommendations, the report said the department should clarify expectations for caseworkers, increase oversight of the program, and work with the courts and state's attorneys' offices to better establish criteria for the removal of children.