DCFS review: Information lacking, investigators and case managers not in sync
A six-week review of an embattled Illinois Department of Children and Family Services division that tries to keep children within their homes instead of foster care found a lack of collaboration between investigators and case managers and a gap in historical information about allegations.
The University of Chicago Chapin Hall report also concluded that in some cases providers reported that when they can’t engage a high-risk family to work with them, “they may simply close the case.”
Those are among some of the systemic, cultural and structural problems unearthed by Chapin Hall researchers in a report to be released publicly on Wednesday and meant to identify factors that have affected outcomes in cases of child deaths.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered the review just six weeks ago — even before the agency reeled in the tragic death of 5-year-old Andrew “AJ” Freund, the Crystal Lake boy who was allegedly killed by his parents. Two workers who had been monitoring the family prior to the tragedy have been removed from casework. And DCFS is reviewing all cases handled by the two employees.
And it comes as newly appointed Director Marc D. Smith takes the reins of the struggling agency, which has seen a downward trend in funding for years and continues to struggle with the high-profile deaths of children whose families had contact with the agency. The agency has seen an astounding 12 acting and interim directors within the last 10 years, according to the governor’s office. And Smith is quickly dealing with problems directors have faced for decades.
The review evaluated the state’s Intact Family Services. About 85% of those cases are handled by private companies, with the rest by the state. In 2012, the agency’s budget was cut and only cases with indicated abuse were referred to Intact. In Illinois, the report states, Intact provides services to almost 5,000 families of nearly 12,000 children each year, or about 14% of cases in which there is a child maltreatment investigation. Over the last five years, Intact cases represented 15% of the 41 deaths that were included in the Office of the Inspector General’s Death and Serious Injury Investigations.
Some of the most serious problems highlighted in the report include the lack of historical information in critical cases that prompt Intact supervisors to be “reluctant” about elevating cases to supervisory review. The report also found a lack of communication between investigators, who identified with law enforcement, and Intact supervisors, who identified as mental health and social workers.
The report also found some structural issues, such as lack of information because a case was expunged or purged. Under current law, cases are expunged after five years, so the record would only reflect an event happened. If the allegation was unfounded, there are no details on record.
Smith said that change could come through the legislative process, but said it would be more helpful to see a “pattern of need and support” and not just the details of an unfounded allegation.
“Assessment of a family’s safety sometimes evolves over time,” the report says. “The unavailability of so much historical information may contribute to critical case details being lost and influences child welfare staff to rely on family’s accurate self-reporting on their history.”
The report also noted that Intact supervisors may be “reluctant” to elevate cases to supervisory review or to reject inferrals because they don’t have access to data and evidence to support their ‘hunches,’ and “in the face of pervasive expectations and planning needed to prevent removals.”
The review was funded by an existing contract through DCFS and Chapin Hall, the department said.
Among many problems analyzed by Chapin Hall researchers is a culture of “avoidance of removals,” which began in the mid 1990s in response to federal legislation that prioritized keeping families together, finding permanent homes in a timely manner and placing children with relatives.
“Today, the Illinois child welfare system remains motivated to avoid removing children from their parents, and DCFS relies heavily upon Intact to maintain the low removal rate,” the report states.
Asked whether he’d maintain the cultural mindset of avoiding the removal of children, Smith told the Sun-Times he hopes to “enhance peoples’ capacity and understanding of how to make the decisions that are appropriate for each individual family.”
“I don’t want them to feel like they’re restrained when trying to make decisions about safety,” Smith said.
But the report says in talking to staff, many believed that recommendations to remove children based on case complexity, severity or chronicity “will not be heard or upheld by the Division of Child Protection or the court.”
“This results in a population of Intact cases with extensive histories, some of whom have experienced Intact previously and are not included to work with providers,” the report said.
The report also found that investigators were focusing on compliance with the investigation instead of safety determinations: “They often do not play the role articulated in the Intact policy for engaging the family or working with the Intact staff to ensure that all information is communicated and the family seamlessly transitions to Intact.”
The report looked at three recent deaths, two of which occurred during an Intact case. In both cases, there was “no evidence of ongoing collaboration between DCP [Division of Child Protection] investigators and Intact case managers.” The third death analyzed in the review was a child who had returned to her mother’s custody, but Intact was not involved at or near the time of death.
In one Intact case, an investigation was unfounded for abuse despite the investigator overhearing the paramour ordering the child to “lay down,” the report said. The investigator also found the child’s torso exposed and covered in welts. But the case was unfounded due to lack of medical evidence when hospital staff could no longer find the welts. No escalation of the case occurred and the mother agreed the paramour wouldn’t be around the children. And in a second case review, the mother was cooperative but but slow to “accomplish tasks,” because she had a cognitive delay. Despite the “soiled nature of the home,” ongoing noncompliance with her leasing agreement and several investigation during the Intact case, a child and family team meeting wasn’t convened, the report said.
Researchers noted a meeting with all the assigned professionals would have been a “helpful step toward risk assessment and service planning.” Instead, investigators and Intact case managers only spoke occasionally as new investigations opened and closed.
In the case of a death of a child who had previously been in foster care, there were a substantial number of hotline referrals during the case. But investigators and other staffers did not collaborate or share information to evaluate underlying conditions. And the report also noted a problem highlighted in a lengthy auditor general’s report released last week: overwhelmed case workers.
The report issued nine recommendations, including finding a better protocol to close cases, working with the courts to refine criteria for removal and directing attention to cases at greatest risk of severe harm.
Despite the negative attention the agency has received for decades, Smith said he wants social workers and case managers — the many employees taking the brunt of critical reviews and reports — to know he “supports them 100 percent.”
“We as an agency will continue to support them at every level that we can,” Smith said. “We recognize that people need training, that people need to be put in the best possible situation to make these very difficult and challenging decisions. And that is going to be my responsibility and the responsibility for the agency going forward. That they get the support they need while they’re out in the world doing this very difficult and challenging work.”