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Former DCFS worker: Staff, kids at risk with worker shortage

The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, 6201 S. Emerald Dr., on May 13, 2019.
Ashlee Rezin
Chicago Sun-Times
The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services office at 6201 S. Emerald Drive in Chicago, on May 13, 2019.

By the time Bloomington police knocked on the door of Jessica Blumenberg’s apartment, her five young children were wary of the trouble that could follow if they let officers inside while they were home alone, anxiously awaiting their mother’s return from the store with anything to curb their recurring hunger.

Conditions inside the apartment in the Sunnyside Park public housing complex were recounted in a police report of the Nov. 15, 2023, incident. Officers found condiments, but little else in the way of food, and noted that furnishings in the three-bedroom unit were limited to two twin and one queen-size mattress.

“There was garbage strewn about the residence,” noted the report.

Police responded to the call for a well-being check on the youngsters at 8:45 p.m., a time in the evening when most small children are in bed. Forty-five minutes later, Blumenberg returned home without food for her family and a fabricated story about a trip to two west side stores and a restaurant, officers said in their report.

The 32-year-old mother was taken into custody on child endangerment charges and her children were taken to the Bloomington police station where they were fed.

Blumenberg’s children ranged in age from 1 to 9 years old.

The November incident was not Blumenberg’s first contact with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. According to a former DCFS investigator who spoke with WGLT and had access to Blumenberg’s records, the agency was called in September to investigate possible child neglect at Blumenberg’s home. An investigator’s attempt to talk with the mother was unsuccessful and no follow-up was made until the police call in November, said the former state worker who asked that her name not be disclosed.

Blumenberg’s children are living with a relative in northern Illinois as their parents face an ongoing child neglect case in McLean County court. Blumenberg did not attend a Jan. 2 hearing, but the father of the children, Antoine Williams, appeared in court through a video link with the Danville Correctional Center where is serving 30 years for armed robbery.

Blumenberg also failed to appear at a Jan. 12 hearing in her criminal case.

Delays in responding to potential threats to child safety are not uncommon in Illinois, where DCFS has struggled to hire and retain adequate staff to meet an increasing number of child neglect and abuse calls.

In a progress report compiled by DCFS for fiscal year 2023, the agency noted that “unprecedented staff turnover impacts the accuracy, comprehensiveness, and consistency of ongoing assessments of risk and safety.”

With an investigator vacancy rate of 21.2% and a five-year turnover rate of more than 20% statewide, according to an April 2022 report filed in federal court, state caseworkers and investigators are expected to juggle caseloads far heavier than those outlined in a federal consent decree in the 1988 B.H. class action lawsuit.

The former investigator attributed the two-month delay in the state’s response to neglect accusations in Blumenberg’s home to a shortage of DCFS staff and high caseloads.

“It’s a systematic failure of what they’re doing. They’re overloading the investigators with cases. Children can’t be seen when they need to be seen,” she said.

Dangerous for kids, stressful for staff

The Bloomington DCFS office handles cases in McLean, Livingston and DeWitt counties, an area covering more than 2,600 square miles. The high caseloads, combined with travel time to investigate them, left staff feeling overwhelmed and stressed to the point of exhaustion, said the former investigator..

“Every day, I would wake up to emails, just basically, this isn’t getting done, this isn’t getting done. And you’re sitting there thinking to yourself, how am I supposed to get all this done? I mean, I was sitting on 71 cases, what do you want me to do? It was to the point where people were so stressed out, people were crying all the time in the office. And health issues. I had co-workers who ended up in the hospital because of the stress,” she said.

After a case is opened, investigators have 60 days to determine if it should be closed. The former staff member recalled feeling pressure from supervisors to close as many cases as possible, adding to the strain on workers struggling under the weight of heavy caseloads. As some cases languish unattended, new reports — sometimes as many as five or six a day — are landing on investigators’ desks.

The state’s failure to respond to reports of abuse and neglect within 24 hours and complete investigations within timelines set by state statutes has been cited in state audits 17 times since 1998.

Woman seated at desk smiling, wearing a collared shirt and sweater
Heidi Dalenberg

Incomplete reports and burdensome caseloads as high as 70 put children at risk, according to ACLU lawyer Heidi Dalenberg, who oversees compliance with the B.H. consent decree.

“I can’t imagine how terrifying it would be, if you’re a responsible investigator to have that kind of work burden, knowing that there was no way, physically possible, for you to get out and do all the things that you should be doing in a well-run investigation. And on top of that, you have to remember the impact on the families," she said.

"You could have a child in danger, you could have a family in the midst of an investigation that should be unfounded, where nothing is actually wrong. And the stress that puts on both the worker and the family, and also the child, is really intense. None of it is what we’re looking for in a well operating system in Illinois.”

The federal court mandate sets a monthly limit of 12 on the number of new cases that may be assigned to investigators during nine months of the year, and up to 15 new cases during the three other months when hotline calls increase.

Dalenberg explained the reasons for the limitations which the state agreed to in the federal case: “We wanted to make sure that investigators could get out there, see the child as soon as possible, talk to the parents as soon as possible, make sure all the information you need is fresh in people’s minds, and do the investigation in a timely way.”

The consent decree also requires DCFS to reduce its investigator vacancies to 6% by March 2024.

When investigations into alleged abuse are delayed, the consequences can be deadly for children. In 2023, the Office of Inspector General reported 171 deaths of children in Illinois within a year of contact with DCFS.

Often, child welfare workers are the first to respond to a child abuse complaint.

The former investigator said, “We are on the front lines, just like firefighters and police officers. And the investigators are overworked. They need help. They need more investigators that are put into these offices. We have to make sure kids are seen like they’re supposed to be seen, that investigations are getting worked the way they need to get worked. Having an investigator overloaded with 70 to 80 cases is not feasible. Somebody needs to do something to fix this failure.”

Safety measures have been put in place for child welfare workers since the 2022 death of a caseworker killed during a home visit. Security guards at DCFS offices and classes in self-defense and the use of pepper spray for workers are among the safety measures, according to DCFS.

Staff numbers on the rise

Numbers for some staff positions increased last year after state lawmakers approved an increase in the DCFS budget to provide raises as an incentive for new employees.

DCFS communications director Heather Tarczan said the agency “is experiencing the highest level of staffing we have had in 15 years with more than 3,400 people on our team. The majority of our hiring has focused on case workers/managers throughout the state.”

Illinois offers “robust benefits and salaries and there are advancement opportunities,” said Tarczan.

The Bloomington DCFS office ended the year with 15 investigators, up from 11 in June, according to state data. The state listed two vacancies for investigators.

As the state’s child welfare agency grapples with the challenge of hiring more investigators, Heidi Mueller was recently to hired to replace Marc Smith, the embattled director who resigned in October after a rocky tenure marked by scathing state audits and contempt citations for failing to move children from hospitals in a timely manner.

Dalenberg is optimistic that Mueller’s background as director of the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice “will inspire her to work closely with us to try to do the development that we need of community-based resources to make sure we’re raising children in home-like settings when that’s appropriate, and that they’re only in institutions when they have a high-end need or an episode where they require more intensive treatment.”

Updated: January 29, 2024 at 11:11 AM CST
A spokesperson for DCFS said 96% of children in welfare cases were seen by an investigator within the first week.
Edith began her career as a reporter with The DeWitt County Observer, a weekly newspaper in Clinton. From 2007 to June 2019, Edith covered crime and legal issues for The Pantagraph, a daily newspaper in Bloomington, Illinois. She previously worked as a correspondent for The Pantagraph covering courts and local government issues in central Illinois.
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