Riddled with complaints and ethical violations, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services wants more money to address what the director called “a number of burning fires.”
Speaking before a statehouse committee, State Senator Mattie Hunter (D-Chicago) summed up the frustration many have with the child welfare agency: “Let’s tear the whole system apart and just listen to what people have to say," said Hunter. "See if we can put together a whole new system, or something. I don’t know. I don’t have the answers. The one thing I know, the direction we’re headed in… that’s not it.”
Hunter was not alone. Others echoed her sentiments regarding a lack of trust in the agency. State Senator Chapin Rose (R-Mahomet) says he too is ready for accountability within DCFS.
“I’m done giving you guys the benefit of the doubt," said Rose. "There will be accountability. There will be training. There will be enforcement, and it will be done right. I have had it. It is inexcusable. Again, you just got here so I’m sorry it’s all landed on your shoulders but we have got to do a better job.”
The agency has a checkered past. One where failures of investigators and the bureaucracy have led to children dying. But DCFS has also struggled to do the work, having to manage large caseloads, staff turnover and other problems, including a growing opioid crisis that too often puts children in danger. Many have called the director’s job the toughest in state government.
That job now belongs to B.J. Walker, who took over nine months ago. She inherited a department reeling from the death of a 17 month old. Investigators made several visits but left Semaj Crosby in the home. She was found dead under a couch. Walker said a major change is a new daily reporting system for specific cases.
“Now I have someone at the regional level who will then reach out to the agency and make the connection between the investigator and the agency to make sure there’s new risk being noticed in this case,” said Walker.
DCFS has also come under scrutiny for privatizing what is known as the “intact family services program.” Its goal is to offer counseling and other services so that children can remain in a home if possible. The Chicago Tribune reported a spike in deaths after that change. Crosby’s case was among them.
Walker has indicated she is taking a close look at that program and improvements are being implemented. But while the department is asking for more money from lawmakers, State Senator Heather Steans (D-Chicago) is concerned about where DCFS is investing the funds.
“When you also talk about the problems were having, particularly where we have caseloads going up," said Steans. "I’ve also heard you say that our number of beds is going down and that’s a problem. We have more people in out of state placements right now that you’ve acknowledged. We’ve got kids sitting in psych beds because we can’t get them a placement. When I spoke to the director of the department of juvenile justice, she’s been able to do a good job of making sure that people are languishing there except kids who are in DCFS placements, because she can’t get them housing so they’re stuck in a detention facility because they can’t get a DCFS placement. So we have all these issues that are clearly putting pressure and say that we need more placements, and yet we’re being flat there and doing investments in other places. I’m just not sure I understand that.”
But Walker said the department has several needs to be addressed. “DCFS is a tapestry of need and as you acknowledge, when we’ve had 15 or 16 deaths in intact caseload, I had to start evaluating where could I see myself making an investment that I thought was of urgency.”
Walker said she is trying to create more ways to house kids. DCFS has also been criticized for failing to report child abuse data monthly. Walker attributed this to a technological failure and the agency recently released the data for the first time since last summer.