102 Illinois children who died from 2015-17 had prior DCFS contact, audit says

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Illinois lawmakers on Tuesday took aim at the state's Department of Children and Family Services, which has been haunted for decades by deaths wrought of abuse and neglect and is in the spotlight again following the beating death of a 5-year-old suburban Chicago boy with a long history of contact with the agency.

Rep. Sara Feigenholtz stood with more than a dozen House and Senate members of a new child welfare reform caucus to propose legislation that would bolster checks and balances in the child welfare agency.

Reeling from criticism of its handling of cases in which three children under its watch have died this year, DCFS took another hit on Tuesday. Auditor General Frank Mautino issued a review of the agency's investigative practices from 2015 to 2017, which found that 102 children (15.5%) who died during the time frame had previous contact with DCFS. In total, there were 163 prior investigations for the 102 victims, the audit says. 

Also, while abuse and neglect complaints jumped 11%, its hotline put callers into voicemail more than half the time, caseloads of investigators regularly exceeded limits set by a federal consent decree, and in more than three of five cases reviewed, there was a lack of documentation showing that when a child stayed with a family, there were proper social services provided for the family.

DCFS has requested funding for 126 new hires in the budget year that begins July 1.

Feigenholtz's measure would set up a review of allegations of neglect or abuse in which DCFS investigators concluded there was insufficient evidence to sustain the claim, to make sure all the boxes were checked.

"We want to make sure that there are other sets of eyes on these cases that are so difficult," said Feigenholtz, a Chicago Democrat.

It was a key missed piece in the case of Andrew "AJ" Freund of Crystal Lake.

Records in AJ's case show he confided to an emergency room doctor in December that he had been beaten with a belt, but a DCFS administrator conceded last week that the information was missed when the agency ascribed AJ's bruising to a playful family dog and closed the complaint in January.

The 5-year-old's body was found April 24 wrapped in plastic in a shallow grave near Woodstock, and his parents have been charged with murder.

"Our mission is to take all the necessary steps to overhaul longstanding policies and procedures that have failed Illinois' children and these recommendations are an important element of our path forward," DCFS Director Marc Smith said in a prepared statement.

Even before AJ's death, Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered a review of the agency to recommend improvements following the deaths of two toddlers. The mother of a 2-year-old Decatur girl has been charged with her murder after the girl was returned to her from foster care, and a 2-year-old Chicago boy 's autopsy showed bruises and rib fractures never reported despite numerous DCFS visits.

DCFS has for years emphasized keeping biological families intact when possible, but given the recent record, a change of focus might be in order, said Rep. Anna Moeller. Like AJ, the 47-year-old Elgin Democrat was born with opiates in her system. Moeller was taken from her biological mother and reared by her grandparents.

"Our main priority must be what is best for the child, even if that means removing him or her from their parents," Moeller said. "We need to support and improve our foster care system and our adoption care programs. We need to provide appropriate resources so DCFS can do its job."

The audit, ordered by the House in June 2017, suggests DCFS has repeatedly failed to provide the necessary social services to help troubled families with problems such as drug addiction, joblessness or a lack of parenting skills.

There was no listing for services recommended in 11% of cases and in 26% the listing was "No Service Needed," a statistic which James McIntyre, co-founder and board president of the Illinois chapter of Foster Care Alumni of America, said is telling.

"What that says in normal-people talk is we left families alone, we left families stranded," McIntyre said. "We let that kid know that their voice does not matter and that although, yes, abuse is wrong, we as a state said, 'OK, we don't need to offer services. We don't need to offer support.'"