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DCFS audit shows messy, inconsistent data

DCFS Headquarters in Springfield, Illinois
DCFS Headquarters in Springfield, Illinois(WGEM)
Published: May. 12, 2022 at 3:33 PM CDT
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SPRINGFIELD (WGEM) - An review required by law of the Department of Children and Family Services made key findings on how the state in ensuring the quality of care for children.

The required home safety checklist the department must go through before children are returned to their parents’ custody was either rarely done or not recorded. Of the nearly 200 instances where a home review should have been done and recorded, DCFS was able to provide three recorded instances of a checklist. 98%, of the checklists, were not provided to the auditor.

The audit made 8 key findings and recommendations for the agency, citing a recurring theme of lack of available and easily found data. Additionally, there were multiple instances where the response from the agency revealed information in a different system or area of the department, which the state auditor’s office said they were not made aware of.

The audit covered three main areas: department organization, family reunification, and the physical welfare of children. In several areas, the department was found to be non-compliant with provisions listed in state law.

It was enacted as required by Ta’naja’s Law, named in honor of two-year-old Ta’naja Barnes, who was killed Feb. 11, 2019. Her mother and her mother’s boyfriend have been convicted of murder for her death. She had been living with her mother after her removal by DCFS for six months.

The law also requires another audit to be conducted within two years of the current one, to assess whether the department has made any of the changes recommended by the auditor.

“The administration appreciates the constructive collaboration it has received from experts, stakeholders, and legislators on these efforts and looks forward to continuing its aggressive work to protect vulnerable children and families across Illinois,” a spokesperson for Gov. JB Pritzker’s administration said in response.

One of his political opponents, Republican gubernatorial hopeful Richard Irvin released a statement calling for the firing of DCFS Director March Smith, calling the issues with the agency a “clear failure in leadership.”

Medical check-ups for children in care

By federal and state guidelines, children in DCFS care are required to get medical physical checkups, as well as hearing, vision, and dental exams.

The audit asserts for the period in which data was collected, dating back to two years, that care was not being provided to children in the system.

Of the 50 cases examined in physical, vision, hearing, and dental categories, nine children had missed one physical exam. Seven children had missed a vision screening, more than half of the children studied had missed a hearing exam and almost 88% had missed dental exams.

These can manifest in ways like not having necessary glasses, cavities that go undetected, or hearing loss than can affect a child’s school performance. The cases are not expanded upon and no personal details are provided in the report.

Children are supposed to be assessed physically once they enter DCFS care and then have their health maintained while they remain under the department’s guardianship. Screenings occur periodically throughout a child’s life at predetermined stages.

The audit also noted the difficulty in finding data, because there were “numerous” errors in the data entry, such as inconsistent birthdates and or duplicated information.

In an attempt to research whether or not children were up to date on their immunizations, the auditors said they had to give up on their study of 50 randomly selected cases because the data was so inconsistent and riddled with errors. Some entries showed children receiving double the amount of recommended doses for certain shots, while others showed them far below the recommended amount of immunizations needed.

That database acts as the definitive source of medical information for children in DCFS care. If the information is incorrect, it’s difficult to find accurate information.

They recommend complying with the federal and state procedures to provide better care to children, however, the department said they have been providing care and checkups to children, but that that data is stored in a separate managed care service. the auditor contends they were not aware of this.

Reunification of families

When children reenter the care of their parent or legal guardian after removal, certain steps have to be engaged to make sure the situation is safe and appropriate for the child.

There has to be a home safety checklist that is filled out and reported. If the family is reunited after the home visit, then the family is required to get six months of aftercare services.

But, in two separate studies, there was a significant portion of cases that never received those services; or if they did, there’s no record of it.

The audit identified 195 instances in which a home safety checklist should have been filled out. When asked to provide that information, DCFS gave them three checklists. Nearly all, 98%, of instances where a home visit should have occurred have no official record of their existence.

Of the three identified checklists, they did not contain updated steps and language required by a law that was effective in January 2020. The audit marked this as another instance where the department was not in compliance with previously established statutes.

For aftercare services, more than half of the randomly selected cases did not have a record of receiving at least six months of services. Those services were also not updated to reflect new law.

“Because DCFS did not ensure that families are receiving the recommended services for the required duration of time, a successful family reunification is less likely,” the audit reads.

They recommended updating the language and making sure these home visits occur. The department said they will provide refresher training to their employees on the procedures of home visits and aftercare services. They also committed to retraining employees to ensure proper data entry.

Department structure, organization

Though not under the umbrella of child welfare and quality of life, the audit also noted specific problems with the department’s structure that affects its ability to internally review its policies.

The first red flag noted that the internal DCFS auditor needed to report directly to the Chief Financial Officer, instead of to the Director. It is a specific requirement that the internal auditor report to the director, but it poses a question of interference with the auditor. According to generally accepted guidelines, auditors should look and seem independent. They argue by having them report to the financial officer instead of the director stops the auditing arm of the department from being independent.

The audit also shed some light on the staffing vacancies within the department. There’s a 20% vacancy in budget-funded positions overall, with the greatest level of open positions in areas like Rockford (43% vacant) and southern Cook County (26% vacant).

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