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DCFS Investigators Demand Protection From COVID-19 Exposure

State officials speaking at a committee hearing Tuesday morning
Mike Smith
NPR Illinois
Kristine Herman of the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services speaking at a committee hearing back in February alongside (from left to right) DCFS' Jamie Dornfeld and Jassen Strokosch.

This story has been corrected to include an official response from DCFS.

A group of Illinois Department of Children and Family Services workers said the agency is failing to protect them from being exposed to the new coronavirus. The union representing those workers, meanwhile, is demanding more protections be put in place.

Heidi Creasy, who works for DCFS as an investigator in Peoria County, said when the pandemic began back in March, she was visiting families in the hospital three times a week.

“Unfortunately, we did not have protective gear at that point, but the hospital was gracious enough to provide me with some,” Creasy said. “Since that time, I’ve been in the hospital setting at least weekly.”

She’s not alone. Longtime DCFS investigator Stephen Mittons said just a few days ago, he spent four hours in a hospital ER room investigating a homeless family’s case.

“The majority of that time was attempting to try to find shelter for them. You can understand how difficult that was based on the shelter-in-place, so a lot of shelters were not even open, [they] were not accepting new clients,” Mittons explained.

“I did have a mask and gloves, [but] the family I was dealing with [had] no protection and were in the middle of an ER where other people with illnesses and potential COVID are coming by.”

Mittons said requiring in-person visits to hospitals during the pandemic goes against the advice of public health experts. He explained the union representing DCFS workers, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), has been lobbying for changes.

“For weeks, the union has pushed for safe practices that maximize distancing and minimize exposure, not only for ourselves but also for our clients and the public,” Mittons said. “But management has refused and insists that we should continue doing everything virtually the way it has been done.”

AFSCME is asking DCFS to temporarily limit in-person contact between investigators and families wherever possible. Among other things, it’s also asking the department to give field workers masks, gloves, and other personal protective equipment.

Anne Irving, the union's liaison to DCFS, said reducing face-to-face contact wherever possible is the most important factor to consider.

“When they’re interviewing older children, when they’re interviewing adults in the family, other witnesses, even the perpetrator in many instances, it can be done over a video or phone contact,” Irving said.

“We think DCFS needs to look at physicians, therapists, other child welfare clinicians, even the courts, that have all moved to phone and video contact as a way to not only ensure the safety of their employees but also to ensure the safety of the families they come in contact with.”

AFSCME said DCFS told investigators they won’t consider any changes unless and until half the staff at any office have contracted the virus, something the union “strongly disagrees” with.

Investigators say in-person visits will still have to happen in some cases, but with enough protection, they’ll be safer than they are now.

In a statement, a DCFS spokesperson said the agency has provided “an estimated 30-day supply of protective gear available for all direct services staff.” Investigators can also “adjust how they engage parents to preserve everyone’s safety,” which can include practicing social distancing.

Mike Smith is a graduate Public Affairs Reporting intern for the spring 2020 legislative session.
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