123 children died within a year of DCFS involvement, study finds

WGN Investigates
Data pix.

CHICAGO — The inspector general of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services is out with some startling statistics: 123 children died within a year of becoming involved with the child welfare system over the last fiscal year.

“This is wholly unacceptable and represents a nearly 25% increase from the prior year,” Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert wrote in a statement to reporters.

A deeper dive into the inspector general’s report examining the period between July 1, 2018 and June 30, 2019, reveals of the 123 deaths, 24 were ruled homicide, 37 were accidental, 34 were deemed “natural,” 7 were suicide and the cause of death in 21 was undetermined.

DCFS’ policies and procedures have faced renewed scrutiny after the death of A.J. Freund in April 2019. DCFS was repeatedly warned of problems in the home but the 5-year-old was allowed to remain in the home. AJ’s mother plead guilty to murder and his father is awaiting trial. Two state workers who were assigned the case have been terminated.

The inspector general’s report found allegations of domestic abuse, substance abuse or mental health problems had been reported in 41 percent of all deaths.

DCFS acting Inspector General Meryl Paniak noted her office investigated all 123 deaths and provided detailed reports to the agency, legislature and governor.

“I am disheartened that many of the problems I identify here have been identified before,” Paniak wrote to the governor and legislators. “We, Illinois, must do better,” she wrote.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Governor J.B. Pritzker noted the period reflected in the study was before the governor's first budget took effect on July 1, 2019, increasing DCFS' budget by $128 million. That money went towards hiring 300 additional "frontline" employees, experts to recommend policy overhauls and training programs.

"Neglected and abused children have been badly served in Illinois, and Governor Pritzker believes it’s our duty as a state to invest in the long-term transformation of DCFS to better serve our most vulnerable children," spokesperson Jordan Abudayyeh said.

A spokesperson for DCFS issued the following statement:

“The death of any child in Illinois is a tragedy and this department is deeply committed to protecting vulnerable children in this state. Over the past several years, that mission became increasingly challenging as funding cuts and staff reductions left the agency under resourced and without the staff needed to give vulnerable children the care they deserve. At the same time, cases increased with an increase of more than 5000 investigations in FY19 and the number of youth brought in to care and families supported by Intact Family Services increasing as well.

On July 1, with leadership from the Governor and the General Assembly, a new budget went into effect that reversed course. The FY20 budget allowed DCFS to hire 300 additional staff and more than 2,800 existing staff across the state have now received new training on child safety. The  entire leadership of DCFS, including child protection and operations, have been completely restructured and in response to the Chapin Hall report intact family services has been restructured as well. Overhauling the department and reversing long-standing problems in the child welfare system won’t happen overnight, but we are making dramatic improvements and we are deeply committed to getting this right.”

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