Gov. Pritzker promises fixes to child welfare agency

Illinois's child welfare agency has reviewed 1,100 of its ongoing abuse and neglect cases as part of a stepped-up effort to right a department that's facing criticism for failing to prevent the deaths of three children under its watch since January, the governor announced Wednesday.

Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker made the announcement hours after the release of a separate outside report that found that the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services unit responsible for overseeing households in which children are left at home after allegations of abuse or neglect is so intent on keeping children with their parents despite strong evidence of abuse that it has sometimes left those children in grave danger.

Prtizker, appearing with the department's new Director Marc D. Smith, told reporters that Illinois "will be adopting every recommendation" outlined in the report by the University of Chicago's Chapin Hall research center.

"I wish I could stand up here and say that there's a quick fix, that we have the magic potion that will instantly undo years of systematic issues, and will suddenly make this all right," Pritzker said. "Urgency is required. We have the opportunity right now to make dramatic improvements in how DCFS functions and to commit ourselves every day to improving on this work."

The internal review looked at a portion of the department's 13,000 open investigations, not just the Intact Family Services unit. That review is complete and results will be released soon, department spokesman Jassen Strokosch said.

Pritzker said that other steps being taken at the agency include creating a "crisis intervention team" to review every case involving the death of a child with an eye toward improved intervention. Training will be beefed up and policies and procedures revamped, he said.

Pritzker is asking lawmakers for a $75 million increase for the department in the upcoming budget year. He wants to hire 126 more caseworkers.

The Chapin Hall review, ordered by Pritzker, found a profound failure to communicate within the department; overburdened staffers; staffers so convinced that prosecutors wouldn't agree with requests to remove children from homes that they didn't bother to ask; and cases in which evidence and suspicions of abuse or neglect were brushed aside.

The recommendations include making it more difficult to close Intact Family Services cases, improving quality of supervision and streamlining communication.

The study began before last month's beating death of A.J. Freund, a 5-year-old whose parents are charged with first-degree murder. Nonetheless, issues surrounding his short life and violent death - from extensive contact the family had with child welfare workers to a determination that there wasn't credible evidence to support placing the boy in protective custody even though he suggested his mother was responsible for bruises on his body - are examined by the researchers.

Illinois has been lauded for having one of the lowest foster care entry rates of any state in the U.S. Keeping children with their families is "a laudable goal," said Michael Cull, one of the study's authors, but it can be a problem when it "becomes an overriding priority."

Shifting away from that policy would require finding more foster parents, an effort Smith said is underway with private-sector partners.

"It in the past has been sporadic, the way we reach out to people, but we're going to be very thoughtful in how we do that and we're going to tap into people's expertise to bring people in the door," Smith said.

Illinois is not the only state with a child welfare system under fire. In fact, according to the study, the rate of death due to child maltreatment in Illinois in 2016 - 2.16 per 100,000 children - was actually a bit lower than the national figure of 2.36 per 100,000 children. Some 501 children died between 2014 and 2018 while being involved with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services or previously involved with it.

In one case, allegations of abuse were determined unfounded because the welts that an investigator had seen on a child's torso were no longer visible when the child was examined at the hospital. That child's mother violated her agreement not to allow her boyfriend near her children. The report does not include the names of the children, but one of the three children whose deaths prompted the study was allegedly killed by his mother's boyfriend.

Other problems include cases in which troubled families have extensive contact with the agency but case histories are expunged or purged. And in two recent cases where children died, "there was no evidence of ongoing collaboration" between investigators and Intact Family Services case managers.