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‘Disturbing’ DCFS audit shows spike in child abuse cases, swamped caseworkers

The director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services Marc D. Smith, center, listens as he testifies before the House Appropriations-Human Services Committee last month. Legislators asked him about DCFS action in the case of Andrew "AJ" Freund. The 5-year-old boy's body was found in a shallow grave in McHenry County. File Photo. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)

In the latest blow to the state’s embattled Department of Children and Family Services, an audit released on Tuesday found the number of abuse and neglect investigations has increased “significantly” within a three-year span — leaving investigators overwhelmed with caseloads.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office called the report a “disturbing illustration,” while the newly appointed head of DCFS said it showed “serious lapses and problems.” And state Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, D-Chicago, along with House and Senate colleagues on Tuesday announced the formation of a child-welfare reform caucus to help keep the agency in check.

The agency is still reeling in the tragic aftermath of the death of 5-year-old Andrew “AJ” Freund, the Crystal Lake boy who was allegedly killed by his parents. Two workers who had been monitoring the family prior to the tragedy have been removed from casework. And DCFS is reviewing all cases handled by the two employees.

Signs and ribbons line the street in front of the Davenport Family Funeral Home, where the visitation of 5-year-old AJ Freund of Crystal Lake was held last week in Crystal Lake. | Mark Black/For the Sun-Times
Signs and ribbons line the street in front of the Davenport Family Funeral Home, where the visitation of 5-year-old AJ Freund of Crystal Lake was held last week in Crystal Lake. | Mark Black/For the Sun-Times

The report released Tuesday did not deal with AJ or any individual cases.

Auditor General Frank Mautino’s 152-page report — requested by the Illinois House in 2017 — found the number of abuse and neglect investigations rose from 67,732 to 75,037 — a 10.8 percent spike — from 2015 to 2017.

The report reviewed and assessed the department’s protocols for investigating reports of child abuse and neglect over a three-year period beginning in 2015. In total, there were 221,341 investigations involving 358,545 children. Of those, 96,576 were confirmed victims.

For the 221,341 investigations, there were 450,483 total allegations. The most common allegations were of risk of physical injury and inadequate supervision. A total of 52,502 children were the alleged victims of sexual abuse and 32,439 children were the alleged victims of serious harm, the report said. Children under one were the “most frequent alleged victims of abuse or neglect” and the most likely to have had founded cases.

In this May 15, 2014 file photo, current Illinois Auditor General Frank Mautino then an Illinois state Representative, speaks at the state Capitol in Springfield.(AP Photo/Seth Perlman, File)
In this May 15, 2014 file photo, current Illinois Auditor General Frank Mautino then an Illinois state Representative, speaks at the state Capitol in Springfield.(AP Photo/Seth Perlman, File)

Auditors found that 25.6 percent of all investigations happened in Cook County, followed by Lake County with 4.1 percent. But there were investigations of alleged abuse or neglect in all 102 Illinois counties.

The audit also found that investigator caseloads were not in compliance with a consent decree that has been in place for decades. For the three years covered in the audit, 78.7 percent of investigators had at least one month during the audit period in which they received more than 15 new assignments, the report found. The consent decree requires that each investigator be assigned no more than 12 new abuse or neglect investigations per month during nine months of a calendar and during the other three months of the calendar year, no more than 15 investigations per month.

The audit found 32 investigators averaged more than 15 case assignments per month for the three-year period.

Newly appointed DCFS director Marc Smith said in a statement his agency is already moving forward with recommendations and is “fully committed to making substantial changes in how our agency serves vulnerable children and families.”

Department of Children and Family Services director Marc D. Smith testifies before the House Appropriations-Human Services Committee in April. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)
Department of Children and Family Services director Marc D. Smith testifies before the House Appropriations-Human Services Committee in April. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)

“While the report covers the period from 2015 to 2017, we believe that the problems plaguing DCFS are deep-seated and have existed for years,” Smith said. “Our mission is to take all the necessary steps to overhaul longstanding policies and procedures that have failed Illinois’ children, and these recommendations are an important element of our path forward. We welcome partnerships and input from stakeholders as we move forward with that critical work.”

The governor’s office called the report a “disturbing illustration of both the short and long term damage from hollowing out state government and DCFS’ longstanding problems serving our most vulnerable.”

Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said the governor is already taking steps to address the problems, including adding another 126 caseworkers, requesting an independent review and appointing Smith as the new director.

“The administration is working together with leaders in the agency, lawmakers and stakeholders to identify problems and overhaul functions at DCFS,” the statement said. “There is nothing more important than getting this right and protecting our most vulnerable children.”