CHICAGO — Changes are on the way for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services after recent deaths of children in their care.
Between July of 2017 and June of last year, there were 98 deaths of children in DCSF care, 34 were under the age of 3.
"We’re hitting the ground in a scenario that has to be addressed with a sense of urgency," Marc Smith, interim DCFS director, said.
Marc Smith is the acting director of DCFS. He was appointed in April and tasked with straightening out the troubled state agency.
"I understand how hard the work is because I did it," Smith said. "I was a child protection investigator for DCFS. I was a case manager in the private and public sector. I’ve supervised at those levels. I understand the work and I’m also thoughtful enough to know that I don’t know everything and I appreciate partnerships and I appreciate input from smart, thoughtful people."
"There’s always a way to prevent a death that was caused by abuse and neglect, the way you do that is not the easy part of the answer," Char Rivette, Chicago Children's Advocacy Center, said.
Char Rivette is a member of one of the teams that investigates the deaths of children under DCFS care. She’s also a licensed clinical social worker with over 25 years of experience. In her day job, she’s the executive director of the Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center. The non-for-profit child welfare agency works hand in hand with DCFS and Chicago police to investigate child sexual abuse.
"I think there needs to be a more comprehensive, intense look at the nuts and bolts of investigations from the very beginning," Rivette said.
Rivette is also the previous chair of the Illinois Children’s Justice Taskforce. In 2016, it produced a nearly 100 page report, full of recommendations on how DCFS could improve child abuse investigations. Despite a year-and-a-half of work, those suggestions were never acted on.
"This is still a very valid, wonderful document that talks about forming teams throughout the state to improve the way that we intervene with the most vulnerable cases," Rivette said.
One of the biggest problems Rivette sees is the constantly changing leadership at DCFS. There have been 13 full-time or acting directors in 13 years.
"I was asked and have been asked, how long are you going to be in this role because the turnover has been so high," Smith said. "I’m from Illinois. I’m from Chicago. I live in Juliet. This is my state. I went to school here, I’m not going anywhere."
While Smith is committed to staying, DCFS caseworkers are another story. Turnover is high, largely because the pay is low.
"I’ve also seen workers that are overwhelmed, don’t really want to dig deeper, sometimes folks are really unable to make a good assessment if they are not able to handle the immense work load that they are under or maybe not enough training to understand the dynamics of abuse and how that may affect family," Rivette said.
A recent report by the University of Chicago echos Rivette’s observations. Researchers took a critical look at DCFS' intact family services, the division that keeps watch over thousands of families that are allowed to stay together, while they work through abuse and neglect issues. It’s also the division that has seen a significant number of child deaths. The report found problems ranging from ambiguous accountability to poor supervision and information gaps to a rush to close high risk cases and the avoidance of removing children from abusive homes.
Smith says change is underway beginning with re-training caseworkers and supervisors.
"This is a system that we cannot just stop and then make a lot of changes and then drop the new changes onto the system and then start up again," Smith said.
Rivette is hopeful meaningful change is coming, but she says it will take time.
"I think that there’s enough great minds and a enough great examples of good work that we can build upon these things if we just get that stability in place and really focus on the basics," Rivette said.
Smith is focused on the future, not the past.
"I know what the system can do and I know that when we are at our best we save children and families," Smith said. "We help families, we help them get better. I’m going to try to enhance that skill set and enhance that level of support and work together, so that we can move forward."
Smith and Rivette agree it will take a village to fix DCFS. It will have to be a collaborative effort among lawmakers, law enforcement, the legal community, health care providers, educators, child advocates and DCFS to bring about change to protect our most vulnerable citizens, children.