Illinois’ child welfare agency is so intent on keeping children with their parents even when they have strong evidence of abuse that it has sometimes left those children in grave danger, a study released Wednesday found.
Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered the study of the Department of Children and Family Services’ Intact Family Services unit after the recent deaths of three children. That unit is responsible for overseeing households in which children are left at home after allegations of abuse or neglect.
Illinois has been lauded for having one of the lowest foster care entry rates of any state in the U.S. Yet researchers found a profound failure to communicate within the department; overburdened staffers; staffers so convinced that prosecutors wouldn’t agree with requests to remove children from homes that they didn’t bother to ask; and cases in which evidence and suspicions of abuse or neglect were brushed aside.
Keeping children with their families is “a laudable goal,” said Michael Cull, one of the study’s authors. “But over time for a variety of reasons it becomes an overriding priority that leads to decisions that (the agency) may not even know they are making.” […]
Illinois is not the only state with a child welfare system under fire. In fact, according to the study, the rate of death due to child maltreatment in Illinois in 2016 - 2.16 per 100,000 children - was actually a bit lower than the national figure of 2.36 per 100,000 children.
The study is here (fixed link) and the summary is is here.
Yet the organizations who provide these [intact family services] told researchers they sometimes feel like their hands are tied. They raised the concern that some of the cases they receive are “too complex, too severe or too longstanding” for them to handle but that it’s difficult to decline a case or question the appropriateness of such referrals, said Dana Weiner, a lead researcher of the six-week study. The caseworkers also reported that they didn’t believe judges, prosecutors or department investigators would support more intensive interventions if they petitioned for it.
Families are also not required to accept the services, which can range from mental health counseling to parenting classes. Supporters of intact services note that removing a child from relatives and finding a foster care placement is a traumatic experience that should be avoided when a child’s well-being is not compromised.
“The intact providers do their best to serve the families that they are assigned with the resources that they have available to them,” said Weiner of Chapin Hall, a child welfare think tank based at the University of Chicago that put out the study. “But I think that the expectation that removals will be avoided sometimes discourages them from applying critical thinking to the current safety concerns and the best course of intervention for a family.” […]
Nearly all intact family services — or about 85 percent — are provided by community-based organizations that have contracts with DCFS. The caseworkers are only supposed to have 10 open cases at a time, the report said. When possible, the department retains the highest-risk cases to address in-house.
The Chapin Hall report identified 41 child deaths due to mistreatment that were investigated by the agency’s inspector general between 2014 and 2018. In six of those cases, the fatality occurred while there was an open intact family services case.
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.
[DCFS Acting Director Marc 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.”
* NBC 5…
“It’s basically a bureaucratic mess,” says Charles Golbert, the Illinois Public Guardian. “And we’ve known that for a long time.”
Golbert said private providers have no incentive to keep cases open until problems are resolved.
“They actually get paid less money if the case is still open after six months,” he said. “It makes no sense—it puts bureaucracy and artificial timelines ahead of child safety.”
* CBS 2…
The study recommended nine ways to address the issues; which include refining protocol for closing cases, working with courts and state’s attorneys to refine criteria for removal, redesigning assessment and child intake processes, and giving direct attention to cases at greatest risk of severe harm.
…Adding… From the governor and DCFS…
DCFS Immediate Actions
Action: Review of Open Investigations. DCFS is prioritizing the highest risk cases by taking a close look at investigations where young children are involved and certain allegations of abuse and neglect are present. This urgent review by some of DCFS’ most senior staff will cover more than 1,100 open investigations and focuses on reviewing compliance with key safety measures. Investigations found to be out of compliance will be rectified immediately and receive an additional qualitative review. DCFS expects to have findings from this internal investigation in coming weeks. These findings will help determine the scope of future reviews of investigation work.
Action: Crisis Intervention Team. In the tragic event of a child death, this 8-member team will initiate an immediate review when the death occurs during an open investigation or involves a child with an extensive history of contact with DCFS. The team will examine the family’s full history of involvement with DCFS and all relevant investigations and casework, including other current and previous cases that staff involved are handling. Their scope includes both human and systemic failures that may exist. The Crisis Intervention Team is tasked with quickly developing recommendations following their investigation and when appropriate, implementing changes in training or protocols that will rapidly lead to improving our work of protecting children.
Action: Expanding Training Programs and Retraining Caseworkers. Starting in June, veteran investigations staff will have access to the department’s newest and most advanced simulated (SIM) lab training facility in Englewood. This initiative will give key veteran front-line workers access to the latest tools and techniques being used in training. DCFS is also introducing a re-training program for all child welfare workers across the state. All staff licensed with DCFS, whether they work for the department or for a private agency, will be required to participate in ongoing training. The first re-training will be launched this summer and will focus on safety training, including identifying risks and warning signs.
DCFS Responses to Chapin Hall’s Recommendations
1) Recommendation: Develop and refine protocol for closing Intact cases. When caseworkers are properly supported and they have the right tools, they make good decisions. DCFS will address this problem immediately and develop new standard protocols for closing Intact cases in the next 60 days.
2) Recommendation: Clarify goals and expectations across staff roles. DCFS will clearly articulate expectations for every actor and agency involved in the work of promoting child safety. Defining roles for DCFS investigators, supervisors, Intact providers and staff will be addressed over the next 60 days through training, changes in policy and through communications with staff.
3) Recommendation: Utilize evidence-based approaches to preventive case work. DCFS will examine models that have been piloted and tested in Illinois and other states. We will work closely with Chapin Hall to address this recommendation over the next six months.
4) Recommendation: Improve the quality of supervision. DCFS will develop a new structure for supervision within the agency that provides more clear lines of authority and accountability. DCFS will also work with supervisors to ensure that their teams are openly communicating. Following this report, we will prioritize Intact teams to receive training on the new practice model within the next 30 days.
5) Recommendation: Adjust the preventive service array to meet the needs of the population. We will continue to work with Chapin Hall to identify the services to best support the populations Intact is serving. This process will take 12 months to implement.
6) Recommendation: Restructure preventive services (generally) and Intact (specifically). DCFS has convened a working group to develop a restructuring plan so that there is better collaboration between Intact services (which provides services) and the Investigations division (which is responsible for case investigations). DCFS will develop this plan over the next 30 days, followed by a 30-day rollout across the department.
7) Recommendation: Work with courts and State’s Attorneys to refine the criteria for child removal in complex and chronic family cases. DCFS will work to build consensus among courts and State’s attorneys concerning removal of children who have experienced multiple incidents of abuse. The department will work with partners like Casey Foundation and Chapin Hall to help us implement this system change over the next 12 months.
8) Recommendation: Redesign the assessment and intake process based on systemic review to: a) reduce redundant information collection and data input; b) support decision making with youth and families; and c) improve effective communication across child serving systems. DCFS has introduced several recent changes that eliminate some redundancy in information collection and data input. Over the next 60 days, the department is putting into place a re-training of staff to improve the efficiency, reliability, and accuracy of assessments across screening, intake, service planning, and care transitions.
9) Recommendation: Direct attention to cases at greatest risk for severe harm. DCFS, in consultation with Chapin Hall, will revisit predictive models for help identifying cases with a high risk for maltreatment. Chapin Hall has identified that other child welfare systems are increasingly making use of administrative data to speed the detection of cases that may require additional attention or intervention. This process will take 12 months to complete.
…Adding… Illinois Collaboration on Youth Chief Executive Officer Andrea Durbin…
We appreciate the thorough and thoughtful analysis by Chapin Hall focused on Intact Family Services and agree with many of its findings and recommendations. Supporting and strengthening the Intact system is a goal we all share. It is important to remember that taking children from their families can have lasting negative effects and is a very serious step that should be considered when a child’s safety is paramount. We should also remember that while Intact is an important piece of the child welfare system, it is not the only piece. The system needs focused attention across all levels of care in order to achieve long term stability. We look forward to continuing this critically important discussion and finding solutions to stabilize Illinois’ child welfare system in the days ahead.