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Lawmakers Seek Answers After Death Of 2-Year-Old Decatur Girl

Daisy Contreras
NPR Illinois
Illinois lawmakers are looking for answers after the February death of a Decatur toddler--who was previously in the custody of the state's child welfare agency. Far left, Meryl Paniak, Inspector General; right, DCFS interim director Debra Dyer-Webster.

Illinois lawmakers questioned Department of Children and Family Services officials Tuesday after a 2-year old Decatur girl died in February, just months after the agency closed her case. 

Department of Children and Family Services case workers removed 2-year old Ta’Naja Barnes from her home on two separate occasions within a year. Last fall, she was returned to her mother and her case closed. Despite another call to DCFS in November for possible medical neglect, the agency didn’t check on her again.  She died on February 11.

DCFS interim director Debra Dyer-Webster said DCFS doesn’t have protocols in place that would allow them to follow-up on closed cases, like Ta’Naja’s.  “Because the case was closed, there was nowhere to send the information,” she said. Normally, if an investigation is on-going or if a cased in open, the information is sent to someone who is already actively working on the case, Dyer-Webster said.

State Rep. Sara Feigenholtz—a Chicago Democrat—said improvements are needed with how hotline calls are handled.  “I think that the failure may be in what we try to and use as factors to build a case that would make us worry again after a case is closed.”

After hearing from Dyer-Webster and from the Office of the Inspector General, State Rep. Sue Scherer, a Decatur Democrat, said she has a few proposals in mind to help restructure the agency. She said reports or investigations usually result in recommendations an agency can follow to improve practices. She said that needs to change.

“It needs to be required—there’s a big difference between recommended and required.” A legislative proposal would tackle that, she said.

In January, the Office of the Inspector General reported that within the last two years, at least 98 children died while under the welfare agency’s watch.

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