DCFS is Broken, Half Measures Won’t Do

Dean Street GateI’ve driven by this gate on Dean Street, south of Woodstock, a million times. As the crow flies, it’s about 2 miles from my house. Little did I know that this road would soon become part of  one of the most horrific cases of child abuse to ever be reported in Illinois.

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On April 28th of this year, authorities recovered the remains of 5 year-old A.J. Freund from a shallow grave dug several hundred yards past the gate. The story of A.J.’s disappearance and death has made national headlines, and has launched an examination of Illinois’ Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), the State agency created to protect children from abuse and neglect. The examination by the Department’s Inspector General has reportedly recommended the dismissal of 3 employees working out of the Woodstock office of DCFS.

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I’ve recently been appointed to the “Task Force for Strengthening Child Welfare Workforce for Children and Families”,  established by Public Act 100-879, whose purpose is to:

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[C]reate a task force to study the compensation and workload of child welfare workers to determine the role that compensation and workload play in the recruitment and retention of child welfare workers, and to determine the role that staff turnover plays in achieving safety and timely permanency for children.

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As a member of that Task Force, I recently received a letter from Patrick Kenneally, the McHenry County State’s Attorney, wherein he describes in great detail three cases that have come to his attention after the A.J. Freund case, any of which could have ended just as tragically.

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The main point of Patrick’s letter is well-reasoned and very plainly stated:

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DCFS workers are inserted into a countywide, multi-disciplinary investigatory system, which includes police, prosecutors, judges, social workers, CASAs, child advocacy center employees, foster parents, and guardian ad litems. It is the collective responsibility of all these participants to protect children. DCFS, by investigating suspected cases of child abuse and neglect, plays a critical role in having the first contact with the mandated reporters’ allegations. Through its investigations, DCFS is responsible for bringing those children in need of protection to the attention of the other participants who, through the system, provide that protection.

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In order for the system to work effectively, there needs to be a certain degree of coordination and coherence among participants, especially with respect to ultimate goals and results. In this regard, however, DCFS is somewhat insoluble. I do not mean to suggest that many  DCFS workers are  not deeply concerned with the well-being of children and  doing their  jobs right. However, problems and shortcomings with the other DCFS workers that effect the whole system are not easily resolved because DCFS workers, who are ultimately State employees, are not part of the local system in a strict sense.

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Moreover, we continue to perceive a self-awareness among DCFS leadership that their organization is systemically flawed, in that it is overly bureaucratic and unresponsive, and that while they see the problems, especially with regard to certain staff, “there is only so much they can do.” We are also aware of an unfortunate part of DCFS culture wherein commitments to bright-lines regarding workers’ rights, DCFS protocols and procedures, and specifically assigned duties can take precedence over results and fulfillment of ends.

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He concludes by saying:

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[T]he  primary responsibility for protecting children in a community should belong to  the  community, not the State. Moreover, and in my opinion, the agents designated to protect  children in a community should be primarily accountable to the community, not the State.  As such, I would strongly urge you to consider legislation that would provide a significant  measure of control over DCFS operations within a county to county government.

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Since May I’ve been taking a deep dive into the processes and procedures of DCFS, and I’ve come to the inescapable conclusion that our child welfare system as currently constituted is broken and cannot be fixed without systemic change. This is not an accusation against the many men and women who work for the agency and who go far beyond their mandate to keep children out of harm’s way. They’re dealing with an impossible situation made worse by the piling of one mandate upon another, and creating a situation where the process is more important than the mission. It starts with the hotline, and extends to investigations and its coordination with law enforcement, Intact Family Services, lack of medical support, placement and on and on. It goes further, with “mission creep” resulting in the agency taking over duties better left to others, such as licensing and background checks.

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Circling back to the Task Force to which I’ve been assigned, all I can say if we confine ourselves to looking at compensation and workload as the primary reason for what’s gone wrong with DCFS, we’ll completely overlook the culture that has been allowed to develop around the agency, which is at the heart of its problems. The time for half measures is over.

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Patrick is right, the child welfare system will not work unless there is accountability at the local level, accountability to the community that’s being served. I realize that changing an entire agency from a one-size-fits-all model to one where the buck stops at the County line will be a heavy lift. But it has to be done. A little boy consigned to an anonymous grave alongside a back road deserves nothing less from us.

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