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More Problems, More Cuts at Illinois DCFS

Illinois’s often-troubled Department of Children and Family Services has seen its budget decline over the past decade—and a new round of cuts will reduce staffing even further, to 1980s levels.

The new issue of the Chicago Reporter focuses on child abuse, centering around a heartbreaking piece by Maria Inez Zamudio on the deaths of children whose families have been investigated by DCFS; while homicide overall has declined in Chicago, Illinois, and across the country, child abuse homicides have remained steady:

The Reporter analysis shows that nearly 20 percent of the homicides—or 44 cases—occurred within a year after DCFS investigators dismissed the allegations of abuse or neglect as “unfounded.” The target of these “unfounded” investigations committed more than 60 percent of the 44 homicides.

And the agency was actively involved in about 41 percent of the cases at the time of the homicide, either still investigating the allegations of abuse or neglect, or keeping the children with their family member under various modes of supervision. Another 35 percent of the victims were current wards of the state or their children.

As Zamudio points out, DCFS has long been problematic. The numbers she obtained are eerily similar to ones found by the Tribune back in 1986, when the paper conducted a lengthy investigation into the department:

The statewide death toll from child abuse and neglect last year hit its highest level since 1981, and in about one-fourth of the families where a child died, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services had previously investigated a report of abuse or neglect.

State officials report that 82 children died from abuse or neglect in the year ending June 30, a 49 percent increase from the previous year.

In 21 of the families where a death was reported, DCFS, the state agency charged with protecting children, had investigated charges of abuse or neglect and decided that children could safely live in the home.

In 1986, DCFS employed 2,636 people; in 2012, it’s 2,900, but planned cuts would bring headcount below 1986 levels:

The Armstrong case and others documented by the newspaper have raised questions about whether reforms from the 1990s are at risk in the wake of repeated state budget cuts, staff shortages and high caseloads.

Appointed six months ago, DCFS Director Richard Calica has been working on an agency reorganization to augment the depleted investigative staff and reduce unnecessary layers of management. The agency suffered another blow when the state Legislature recently passed a proposed budget that seeks to reduces DCFS’ staff of 2,900 by 375 workers.

Reducing management has not been one of the agency’s strong points in recent years:

In examining staffing, spending and funding at the Department of Children and Family Services from 2006 to 2011, the Tribune found that the agency cut its investigators and caseworkers at a higher rate than administrative positions, such as accountants and human resources workers.

As the agency cut abuse and neglect investigators by about 12 percent and caseworker positions by 16 percent, administrative jobs were trimmed only 7 percent. DCFS increased the number of supervisors for front-line employees, even as it was slashing their direct reports.

[snip]

The newspaper reported that DCFS investigators often have caseloads double what they should be, and that the agency is in violation of critical terms of a 1991 federal consent decree that sets monthly limits on new cases for investigators.

The Trib reporters, Alex Richards and Bill Ruthhart, found that the number of supervisors in that period actually increased as the number of frontline workers fell.

After 20 years, the state is still not in compliance with the consent decree, but the federal government hasn’t been much help. In 2002, the feds provided $14.5 million to DCFS on a budget of about $1.3 billion. By 2012, that had been cut in half to $7 million, not adjusted for inflation; DCFS’s total budget dropped to $1.2 billion—again, not adjusted for inflation. Adjusted for inflation, it’s about a 27 percent budget cut over the past decade, and that will go deeper this year.

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