SPRINGFIELD — When 5-year-old AJ Freund, whose family had a long history of contact with the Department of Children and Family Services, was found dead, it was a spectacularly tragic failure for Illinois’ child welfare agency.
For years, DCFS directors begged the legislature for more money, and it’s not that their pleas fell on deaf ears. Quite the contrary: almost everybody in state government said they wanted to boost DCFS funding, but with Illinois finances in ruins, money for social service providers was cut.
Enter new Governor J.B. Pritzker, who pledged to increase funding for DCFS. He said there are no words to describe how he feels about AJ's murder.
"It’s hard to tell you exactly how it feels as the head of state that ought to be caring for these children," Pritzker said. "Listen, I’d like to declare a state of emergency, if I could."
Instead, Pritzker said he's acting in an "urgent fashion" to focus on the most at-risk kids, while working on more long-lasting reforms that are more sustainable.
Ben Wolf, legal director of the ACLU Illinois, has studied DCFS for decades. In 1988, the ACLU sued DCFS and won court-ordered reforms to improve child safety.
"When you have a system that does such a bad job from start to finish, you’re dealing with very vulnerable children, and if you do it badly, some of them are going to die," Wolf said.
The problems at DCFS are not new, and they are made worse by woeful state funding.
"When we first started with litigation involving DCFS in the 1980s, the Illinois system was probably the worst child welfare system in the country, and we forced them in the 90s through litigation to increase the budget by hundreds of millions of dollars," Wolf said.
The boost in funding had a real impact. The number of children in Illinois foster care dropped from 50,000 in 1995 to about 17,000 today. A federal consent decree governing the treatment of kids in DCFS custody also forced reform.
But Wolf said as the needs of children increased in the mid and late 2000s, the agency began to go off-course. Now, he says fixing it will require more money and "real changes in direction."
"The governors, starting with the legislatures and the governors under Blagojevich and Quinn started refusing to raise the budget when it needed it, and Governor Rauner refused to do anything about budgeting for vulnerable people basically for four years," Wolf said.
Deputy Governor Sol Flores is trying to take the agency in a new direction, describing it as "very hallowed out" when the Pritzker administration took over.
"Things were pretty bad when you had DCFS staff who couldn’t make referrals to other human service providers, ‘cause those non-profits were broke and closing up shop," Flores said.
The governor is trying a long-term approach, adopting overhaul recommendations made by an outside policy firm. At the governor’s request, the legislature also sent DCFS a lifeline, approving $89 million in new funding which will be used to hire 301 new staffers.
"The people who work at DCFS, most of who have been there for years, most of them are quite good at their jobs," Pritzker said. "But when you overload them with cases you ask them to do something that is beyond heroic, they don’t have the capability to handle 30 and 40 cases."
A closer examination of DCFS’ budget shows 40 percent of funds are headlined for family reunification, with less than 10 percent dedicated to investigative services. A monitoring unit and prevention services both get around one percent.
Pritzker said this follows guidelines established by the best states, as "keeping families intact is the standard around the nation." But he says he wants more systems in place to remove children from abusive homes, which could have saved AJ's life.
"You need to be able to anticipate and remember how do they get in these situations, often because the parents fall off the wagon, they have mental health problems, they have substance abuse problems," Pritzker said. "You really have to go at this holistically in a long-term fashion."
Experts applaud the funding boost, but say even more money is needed. There are reports of children sleeping on floors in DCFS offices because the agency doesn’t have enough shelter beds. That must be addressed and more facilities must be built. In other words, Springfield will need to come up with even more money.