Lawmakers look to ‘reshape’ embattled DCFS, but what would it take?

Published: May. 6, 2022 at 10:54 AM CDT|Updated: May. 6, 2022 at 3:50 PM CDT
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SPRINGFIELD (WGEM) - It’s a department the public only hears about when something goes wrong, when tragedy strikes.

Some legislators have dedicated their entire careers to reforming the Department of Children and Family Services and the “myriad” of problems some believe it holds. Between hundreds of children dying in DCFS care, lack of residential beds, caseworker deaths, and a general overload of the system, the department has faced several attacks and calls for reform.

In the final week of the spring legislative session, some lawmakers were calling for a complete transformation of the agency. Representative Carol Ammons (D - Urbana) said the department needed to be “reshaped” and “reformed” substantially. Rep. Steve Reick (R - Harvard) called for similar reform, calling the current system “irredeemably” broken.

“DCFS right now? I feel like they’re in crisis mode,” Former DCFS Bureau of Operations Chief and Illinois Coalition on Youth Director of Policy and Government Affairs Deb McCarrel said. “They’re running from crisis to crisis. It’s very hard to be thoughtful and [forward thinking] when you’re running from crisis to crisis. They’re trying to put the fires out.”

McCarrel argued “crisis mode” has been in place for10 years at least. The department has faced a great deal of instability in the past decade.

There have been 10 directors in the past 10 years, with current Director Marc Smith holding one of the longest tenures in that time of three years.

The department resides under the executive branch of the state government, meaning current Governor JB Pritzker is the person who can have the ability to completely rebuild the agency. Ammons and other lawmakers are calling on the governor to analyze the department and make significant changes.

However, what the legislature does control is the budget. Every state agency appeals to the General Assembly for budget appropriations.

“The legislature has a lot that it can do,” Representative Carol Ammons (D - Urbana) said. “Certainly we control the budget of the department of children and family services... I think we should look at our budget allocations and add stopgap measures into the budget process for [DCFS]. It shouldn’t be carte blanche and it shouldn’t be without credibility.”

Contempt of court holdings, issues with housing youth in care

Since January, Smith has been held in contempt of court nine times for unrelated cases where children were left in medical or psychiatric facilities longer than necessary. they enter the facility, complete their treatment, and then wait for months on end to be placed somewhere else. In one case, a minor was left in a facility for almost an entire year.

McCarrel said this has never happened before, especially up to nine times, but did agree the position of director is a tough job and DCFS is often a punching bag of state agencies. However, he is the first director to be held in contempt of court nine times, and some lawmakers have been unsatisfied with his response.

“I haven’t seen any response from the director of [DCFS] as to how he recommends how his agency should remedy these contempt of court cases,” Ammons said.

Five years ago, 500 beds were removed from state use. McCarrel said it was done in an attempt to switch to community-based services, but those services weren’t in place before the beds were removed.

In the years since the agency has attempted to get those residential beds back. However, they have been losing more beds as they bring more in, resulting in a net loss or no gain at all. McCarrel said since the facilities were “brick and mortar” structures, they can’t be brought back so easily.

“You don’t just turn those on,” McCarrel said. “Once they close wings or they shut down programs like that, to turn them back on again is almost impossible.”

Making matters more complicated, those beds are also utilized by other state departments, meaning there are competitions between state agencies to use those beds.

While the beds attempt to get brought back, more children remain in medical care longer than necessary. Based on information DCFS shared with the General Assembly at a committee hearing earlier this year, there are at least 45-55 children left in care at any given time. Just like the beds, as some get moved out, more get moved in.

Ammons is calling on the governor to step in and investigate the agency to figure out how this has happened nine times.

“If we’re going to be the parent, meaning the state of Illinois says ‘I’m taking your children because you’re not able to address whatever the need might be or they may be in a harmful situation, I’m taking them for that reason, then I can’t, in turn, put them into a harmful situation,” Ammons said. “I don’t understand how the state is a parent and the children are abused in the care of the state.”

“We should all be outraged by this,” she continued.

Caseworker protection, caseload

It’s not clear how many cases are given to each worker, but according to monthly data from DCFS, there are 26,174 cases to date for the FY22 fiscal year. Reports of overloaded caseworkers statewide are common and vacant caseworker positions are rampant.

“Right now we have caseworkers with too many cases,” Ammons said. “When you have workers that have too many cases they are bound, because they are human beings, to run into difficulties trying to manage all of those cases. That is unrealistic.”

Turnover is high for investigators. Many of them leave the field within five years of starting the position.

McCarrel said the work is emotionally draining. Ammons said when she worked as a caseworker, she was always on call which poses concerns for the mental health of workers.

Additionally, making house visits is a potentially hostile situation at the outset.

“They need more ‘how do I deescalate situations’,” McCarrel said. She believed caseworkers need a lot more training than they get.

A bill to give pepper spray to caseworkers was passed and awaits the governor’s signature to become law. Ammons and McCarrel have expressed concerns and opposition to those measures.

Lawmakers also considered a bill to enhance penalties for aggravated battery against a caseworker, making it a class 1 or 2 felony depending on the severity of the incident.

“Someone may go to prison for 30 years, yes they may, that is not going to make all the other social workers safe in the state of Illinois,” Ammons said.

Privatization of DCFS, racial disparities

Most of the department’s day-to-day operations are handled by private, third-party organizations. McCarrel estimates about 85% of total operations are handled in the private sector. Investigations are the only area handled exclusively by the state’s department.

For Ammons, that privatization is part of the problem.

“What we have right now with DCFS at the top-down, third part vendors with very little accountability is not a model that is working,” Ammons said. She would like to join other lawmakers in studying the agency to see what’s working and what isn’t.

“We don’t have a real clue of how, structurally, of how the department is operating outside of the news stories,” Ammons said.

Ammons believes a large part of the amount of youth in care comes from the racial and cultural biases that affect who gets reported to DCFS. Teachers, counselors and many other areas of work are mandated reporters for child abuse, meaning they must report something if they see it. However, some lawmakers believe there isn’t enough training and clarity on what counts as abuse and what might have other causes.

“You have to make a distinction between what is poverty and what is neglect,” Reick said. As an example, he said his family grew up poor and were unable to afford clothes at the rate he and his siblings were growing. He doesn’t want symptoms of poverty to be perceived as neglect and unfairly get a family involved with the system.

Additionally, he thinks child welfare should be a more community-based, local agency. There may still be an interaction between state and local levels, but the focus would be on local involvement.

Lagging indicators

The presence of DCFS suggests a greater need in the community or in the family, McCarrel said. In statistical terms that’s called a “lagging indicator,” meaning it shows a problem within the community but only after it has reached a certain crisis point.

They are also, at the core, a reactionary group. DCFS does not take action until a call to the hotline is made. In much the same way, current bills and reforms have so far been reactionary. After tragic events, certain bills are passed like the pepper spray measure for caseworkers.

In their own way, those reforms can be seen as lagging indicators, pointing toward a large problem at the core of the agency.

McCarrel argued massive reform would be difficult but does want the agency to be better and do more.

“We’ve done it in this country before. We’ve changed whole systems and we’ve made things more equitable and more just along the way,” Ammons said. “I think the department needs to have an overhaul and whether that is this director or some other director. there’s a fundamental problem with the department regardless of who the director is.”

DCFS involvement can stem from issues related to poverty and public health. A lack of available jobs, the closure of grocery stores, housing insecurity and more can be a cause for DCFS involvement. However, Ammons believes the department should focus more on solving those issues for the family than removing children from the home.

“I think we need less children in care,” she continued. “We need way less children in care. New York City is way bigger than we are, but we have 10,000 more children in care than the state of New York. It doesn’t make sense.”

While Reick agrees, he wants the focus to be on keeping the child in permanent, stable situations to keep them developing in a healthy way. He feels the focus of the agency should be centered around the children and not necessarily on al family issues, arguing the child can be used as “bait” to try and encourage families into different behavior.

“DCFS has one job and that’s to protect children. That is it. That’s its reason for being,” Reick said. “The primary responsibility of DCFS is to protect children.”

The first step that both lawmakers are considering if to investigate and see where changes can be made and where they need to be made. Reick said if he is reelected into his seat after the election he plans to make reforming the agency his main focus. Both he and Ammons plan to study and review the agency over the summer for changes.

“Right now we are faced with a real question and quandary in the state of Illinois: what kind of child protection agency do we need?” Ammons said.

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