Illinois to Add More Investigators to Child Welfare Team – But is it Enough?

A 1991 court agreement between the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Illinois’ Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) was supposed to turn the state’s troubled child welfare system around. However, deep budget cuts and the state’s admitted violation of the agreement, brought both sides back to the negotiating table. The Chicago Tribune reports:

The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services plans to add more than 100 investigator positions under an agreement reached Tuesday with the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.

At the same time, DCFS will temporarily rehire some recent retirees and reassign about 100 current employees from other jobs to focus on abuse and neglect cases.

A prior analysis of DCFS data by the Tribune revealed a host of problems inside the department that the new plan is aimed at resolving:

In March, a Tribune analysis of DCFS data showed widespread noncompliance with caseloads too high across the state.

Investigators told the newspaper that because they are so busy handling cases where a child’s safety appears most at risk, they often don’t have time to address less critical cases.

The Tribune also reported problems with the agency’s hotline and day care licensing unit. Recent child deaths have raised concerns about whether warnings signs were missed.

The disturbing trend in DCFS’ performance forced the ACLU’s hand, but there is hope that the agreement will help the system better serve the children and families that rely on it:

“Conditions inside DCFS had reached a tipping point,” said Benjamin Wolf, associate legal director of the ACLU of Illinois. “Recent budget cuts, combined with a degradation of frontline services over the past years, threaten to wipe out important gains made in reforming the system in the past two decades. The plan presented in court … is an important step toward reversing that trend.”

However, local experts have pointed out that some preventative services and management positions will be cut as part of the agreement. The state’s largest public employees union argues that the plan falls far short of real change:

“Hiring just 100 investigators is far short of what’s needed to reverse years of devastating cuts that left employees struggling with unmanageable caseloads, and as Tribune reporting revealed, is forcing thousands of hotline callers to leave messages due to lack of staff,” said Anders Lindall, spokesman of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “If intact services are wiped out, more children will be harmed, families pulled apart and tax dollars expended on foster care.”