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To train staff to deal with abuse, embattled DCFS turns to lab simulations

Experts say the Illinois child welfare agency, under fire after some high-profile deaths of children, has become a national standout for giving workers who investigate child abuse claims hands-on training.

Victor Lasko, an Illinois Department of Children and Family Services official, points to a bruise on a doll used for for training new child service investigators in simulations at a lab in Englewood.
Victor Lasko, an Illinois Department of Children and Family Services official, points to a bruise on a doll used for for training new child service investigators in simulations at a lab in Englewood.
AP

The troubling scene inside the dingy Chicago apartment seems real. There are dangling and exposed wires, open pill bottles near a sleeping baby and a kitchen strewn with dog feces and cockroaches.

But the apartment — with a lifelike infant doll, candles emitting foul smells and plastic insects — actually is part of a new simulation lab to train workers who investigate child abuse claims in Illinois.

“Sometimes textbooks, they sugarcoat things,” said Beth Brown of Murphysboro, who recently trained at the “dirty apartment.” “Teachers sugarcoat things. But this is real life. This is what you’re going to experience.”

Illinois’ use of such experiential training focused on child welfare workers is being cited by experts as a national leader as the state plans to expand with a third simulation lab and university experts write new research on the topic. But the accolades come as the agency faces serious systemic deficiencies, with some of its investigators under fire for high-profile deaths — including a 5-year-old suburban boy this year.

The agency is under multiple court orders, for issues including high caseloads, leading the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois and others to question the expansion.

“Training is a great thing, but all the training in the world isn’t going to fix the foundational problems that DCFS is struggling with,” said ACLU attorney Heidi Dalenberg, who was involved in the caseloads court order.

More than 700 front-line employees have undergone simulation training in Illinois, with hundreds more expected to do so. Child investigators and experts say it’s valuable preparation for a dangerous, high-burnout job at the heart of child protective work.

The use of simulation training isn’t unusual for first-responders. Many medical schools have opened multimillion-dollar facilities. But it’s a newer concept in child welfare, said Victor Vieth, who has trained child protective workers nationwide. The first child welfare simulation labs emerged about 15 years ago at universities. Dozens have since added them, and it has spread to state agencies.

New Jersey has trained child welfare workers at a New Brunswick academy for about five years. Kansas started offering child protective employees simulation training in 2017. The University of South Carolina Upstate opened a training center in 2010.

But Illinois is notable in targeting front-line workers through multiple centers. And its university experts use the data for some of the first research on the topic.

While some state-of-the-art facilities are pricey, Illinois has spent relatively little. The first lab opened in 2016 on the University of Illinois Springfield campus that was a gift. In Chicago, DCFS officials spent roughly $60,000 to convert existing office space into a lab that opened in April. A third is expected downstate within a year.

The state requires all new investigators, who follow hotline calls alleging abuse and neglect, undergo a week of simulation training. That was extended this year to veteran front-line workers, following an outside report on the agency’s systemic issues and high-profile deaths.

The labs use real cases, which state officials say helps others avoid missteps. Early Springfield trainings were based on a child who died during a DCFS investigation.

“Once they go into a home, they have to use all of their senses,” said Monico Whittington-Eskridge, a DCFS deputy director in Chicago. “We are giving a picture of what are some of the typical things that they may encounter when they go into a home. Not every home is a potential dirty home.”

The Chicago lab includes another apartment with less obvious potential trouble: a cabinet of empty liquor bottles. There’s also a courtroom to practice witness testimony and space set up as a doctor’s office or police station. All have cameras, two-way mirrors and microphones for observation.

More than 60 employees have trained at the Chicago lab. Investigators are taught to look for possible issues as they follow up on abuse claims, for instance asking about the open pill bottles near the baby or checking whether televisions are anchored to protect young children.

It all factors into the eventual determination of whether abuse or neglect claims are founded and whether a child will be removed from a home.

This kitchen mockup at an Illinois Department of Children and Family Services simulation lab in Englewood is designed for training new child service investigators. It’s one of several rooms created in the lab that are used for training.
This kitchen mockup at an Illinois Department of Children and Family Services simulation lab in Englewood is designed for training new child service investigators. It’s one of several rooms created in the lab that are used for training.
AP

The state hires actors to portray family members. Trainees are instructed to remain calm, plainly state facts and avoid accusations, in hopes of building trust to learn critical details.

Brown knocked on the door of the dirty apartment and encountered distraught, mistrusting parents.

“We don’t abuse our children at all. We take very good care of our kids,” said an actor playing the mother, growing emotional. “You’re not coming to take our kids, are you?”

“That is not my intention,” Brown responded. “This may not even be an accurate report. My job is to see if it is accurate. I’m not here to accuse you of anything.”

Brown’s supervisor later entered to debrief, praising her calm demeanor and reminding her not to keep her back to the door — a precaution in the risky job.

Investigator Stephen Mittens, who’ll soon undergo the training, has witnessed gunfire. Last year, an investigator died after being attacked while trying to take a child into custody.

“Oftentimes, we’re walking into families’ homes into some of the worst situations,” Mittens said.

Investigators are also the first blamed when things go wrong, he said. That includes the death of Andrew “AJ” Freund, the 5-year-old Crystal Lake boy who had extensive DCFS contact for abuse. His parents now face murder charges.

An investigator and supervisor were removed from handling casework as a result of what happened.

The agency’s other issues have been worsened by state budget problems, including inadequate care for juveniles with mental health problems, a hotline with slow response times and over a dozen agency directors in the past decade. There’s also high turnover, typical of child welfare agencies.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker has allocated funds for more investigators and agency officials have conducted a full review.

Some experts think the simulation training could help, particularly with burnout. Illinois researchers are studying data from the centers. UIS professor Betsy Goulet, who helped design the centers, said early signs suggest trainees are less likely to leave.

For Brown, 40, the simulations are refreshing after the classroom.

“It’s not something that a teacher can tell you what to do,” Brown said. “This is something you need to experience in order to get better and understand the job.”

Actors Tiffini Funches (right) and Anthony Williams play the roles of a mother and father during a training session designed for preparing new child service investigators at an Illinois Department of Children and Family Services lab in Englewood. DCFS has
Actors Tiffini Funches (right) and Anthony Williams play the roles of a mother and father during a training session designed for preparing new child service investigators at an Illinois Department of Children and Family Services lab in Englewood. DCFS has two simulation labs ,where over 700 employees have trained. And there are plans for a third.
AP