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.

.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.

.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:

.[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.

.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.

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

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.

.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.

.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.

He concludes by saying:

[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.

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.

.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.

.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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Paradise Lost

BorderlandBack in the early ‘90’s, a client of mine bought an old lodge up on Crane Lake in Minnesota and spent a small fortune fixing it up. It became a go-to destination for my dad, my brothers and me to spend a week together doing things we never did when we were growing up. Dad lived for those trips, and I’m convinced that they kept him alive for years.


When dad passed in 1997, I told my brothers that we should still go up North, but so long as I could portage a canoe, I wanted to go into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, which is a national wilderness area of several million acres of lakes, islands and forests where motorized craft are prohibited and all you get in the way of campsite amenities is a fire grate and a box latrine.  Whatever you pack in, you have to pack out.


For over 20 years (with periodic interruptions) we would take a shuttle boat across Lac LaCroix and be dropped off on a rock just over the Canadian border and paddle our way into some of the most spectacular scenery in the country and which is listed on National Geographic’s 50 Places of a Lifetime “Paradise Found” list.


7025720-R1-002-00AThe trips always lived up to the promise (mosquitoes notwithstanding). A week of incredible quiet, where right at dusk the lake would turn to glass and you could hear loons calling to one another across miles of water. Nighttime shot full of stars, the Milky Way so bright it would cast your shadow, meteors streaking across the sky and the occasional thrill of the Northern Lights. One year we caught sight of the International Space Station hurtling across the heavens.


We were never great fishermen, but we always caught enough for supper (even if it was the occasional Northern Pike with its troublesome “Y” bones). 7025720-R1-036-16AI had a black lab that I’d take with me, and Jake would swim from island to island to keep track of us as we paddled around the lake. He was a great dog.


I just returned from the BWCA, and I learned that though the wilderness is constant and unchanging, I’m not. It’d been some time since I’d been up there, and that constant and unchanging wilderness showed me how much I’d changed since I was last there. The years are taking their toll, and I found myself struggling to do the simple things like climbing out of my tent. What was once easy had become an ordeal.


There were also a few cracks in the plaster of Paradise, as well. On 3 consecutive days a guided fishing boat came through and parked itself in front of our campsite in complete violation of the prohibition against such vessels in the Wilderness area. I filed a complaint with the Forest Service with the hope that they’ll come down hard on these people. The ticket for each violation can run as high as $5,000, and we know who the culprit was.


One of the beauties of the BWCA is the total lack of cell service. You’re completely cut off from modern communications, or so I thought. I didn’t go up with my brothers this year, that’s a story for another day, but went with an acquaintance from Springfield. On the day we were to break camp, my traveling companion turned on his cell phone to take a few final pictures and 62 text messages showed up on the screen. It seems that even out there, we can’t escape the reach of technology if we choose to let it in.


I guess it’s time to move on.


Paradise Lost.

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The Ever-Too-Short Route to Chaos

Sir Thomas More“When statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties…they lead their country by a short route to chaos.” – Sir Thomas More, “A Man for All Seasons”


From this morning’s “Illinois Playbook”:


The Niles Township Democratic Organization is recruiting candidates to run against state Rep. Yehiel “Mark” Kalish, a Chicago Democrat who decided not to take a position on the Reproductive Health Act — the measure that made access to abortion and other women’s health procedures “a fundamental right” in Illinois.


Kalish, the first rabbi to serve in the General Assembly, is one of 10 Democrats who didn’t support the bill, which was ultimately passed 64-50 and has since been signed by the governor. Six of those Dems voted no and another four, including Kalish, voted present.


But Kalish is the only one taking heat: When he was appointed to the seat vacated by former Rep. Lou Lang, he promised Democratic committee members that his votes would align with Lang’s progressive record on gay rights, gun safety, unions and abortion rights.


That was true through much of the session. But when it came time to support RHA, Kalish backed out. Apparently, it’s one thing to believe in the abortion-rights movement but another to support a bill that declares “a fertilized egg, embryo, or fetus does not have independent rights.”


Lang understands now that Kalish’s non-vote was an act of “conscience.” Nevertheless, Lang told Playbook, “I wouldn’t have chosen him if I’d known how he was going to vote on this bill. It’s a gut bill. It’s a bill about the present and future of the Democratic Party.”


What does it say about our politics when the present and future of the Democratic Party takes precedence over a man’s conscience? It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world – but for the Democratic Party? It just underscores the fact that the Lou Langs of this world have no soul.


Mark, if this is the vote by which your service in the House will be measured, I’m proud to say I served with you.

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An Open Letter to My House Colleagues: The Progressive Income Tax Won’t Work

As we move into the new week and the prospect of considering the resolution to place the progressive income tax on the 2020 ballot, I’d like to add an additional objection to its passage.


It won’t work.


The Governor has said that the measure will add $3.25 billion to revenue in its first year. Based upon the bills we’ve passed just this term, that money’s already been spent.


But the big issue hanging over us is the same one that’s been plaguing us for years: Debt. Our backlog of bills is huge, but it pales in comparison to our pension debt. Just consider what the payment “ramp” requires us to do over the coming years:

Pension Ramp

When you start out by taking 25% or more from General Revenue and putting it into pensions, there’s no way that any change to the income tax structure will accommodate both that and the need to fund essential state programs. The cost as a percentage of General Revenue may drop as a result of the tax change, but the dollar amount is the same. Where’s that money supposed to come from? The Governor is on record as saying he’ll allocate $200 million per year of the tax increase toward the debt, but as you can see, that amount won’t even keep up with the annual increases that are called for under the ramp. It’s a rounding error.


Do we need tax reform? Absolutely. But this isn’t the way to do it. We need a global review of our entire tax structure with an eye toward creating a tax system that moves in the direction of our economy, which requires us to look at not only income taxes, but all sources of revenue: sales taxes, motor fuel taxes, user fees and property taxes. That doesn’t mean raising rates across the board, but looking at changing the mix, broadening bases and thus encouraging economic development, which is the real solution to our problem. Otherwise, the rates that we’re going to be asked to vote on as part of this package of bills will have to be raised, by a large amount and soon.


There’s an element of moral hazard at play here, as well, and that’s the real risk that people will think that by going to a progressive income tax, we’ll have solved our fiscal problems. We know that’s not the case. And when it doesn’t, we’re going to find ourselves back here with the same problems and fewer options to fix them.


We can start down a path of fixing this mess. But it begins by acknowledging the depth of our problem and making a bipartisan commitment to fixing it. The progressive income tax isn’t it, and may very well end up making things worse.


Please vote “No”.


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Rich Miller: Thanks for the Shout Out

Rich MillerRich Miller, the chief cook and bottle washer at the Capitol Fax blog, took aim at me for some comments I made on the House floor last week where I said that the rush for a progressive income tax and other revenue measures is taking front seat over our lack of concern about what happens to that money when we get our hands on it. He started by referencing a line in a story from the Illinois News Network:


“State Rep. Steve Reick, R-Woodstock, told lawmakers on the House Floor that they’re ignoring the problem and need to begin examining where state money is sent in lieu of properly funding pensions.”


His response to that:


“What we need to do is pay into the freaking system and stop the gimmicks and the scare tactics. Neither are getting us anywhere. You wanna help? Find $2 billion a year. Auditing state contractors ain’t gonna do that.”


Rich, I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck. Of course I know that auditing state contractors “ain’t gonna do that.” But what a deeper examination of the operations of state agencies might do is show taxpayers that we’re serious about fiscal responsibility. It might make them more trusting of us when we do go to them for more money. Hell, it might have actually saved us a few million dollars.


You seem to be quite fond of scoffing at any suggestion such as mine, and would probably say that there are any number of cost studies that have been done that never went anywhere and are gathering dust on some shelf at some state agency, and you’d probably be right. That’s not the fault of those who commissioned the studies; it’s the fault of the Legislature for its failure to do the necessary work of implementing their recommendations. It says more about us as a body than it does about those who thought it might be a good idea to see where all that money goes.


I’m not saying that we don’t need more revenue. We do. And I’m not one of those who spends all his time railing against new revenue without offering up any ideas as to how we’re supposed to pay the bills except to insist that we can do it through cost cutting. They’re more unrealistic than you say I am. And you know who I’m talking about. Dogma and principle aren’t the same thing, and nothing was ever accomplished by relying upon dogma.


But raising revenue piecemeal: a progressive income tax here and a hike in the motor fuel tax there and God knows what other proposals that will spring from the fevered minds of those who now control all the levers of State government is not the answer. We need systemic change of our entire taxing system; we need a tax system that tracks the direction of our State economy, which is away from heavy industry and its reliance on income taxes to services and consumption. It involves every source of State revenue, but is a task that will take longer to accomplish than we have before the next election cycle, so of course it’s doomed.


So, Rich, if you want to have that conversation, let’s have it. But come to that conversation with an open mind, because if you don’t, all you’re doing is scoring cheap points at the expense of those of us who actually give a damn.

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