By Jamey Dunn
A recent audit found that investigations of reported child abuse and reviews of death cases by the Illinois Department of Child and Family Services are not living up to state law, although the agency has made improvements in recent years.
Child Death Review Teams that fall under the department’s purview face a backlog of cases, Illinois Auditor General Bill Holland's office found. The teams are required to review the deaths of children who were wards of DCFS, subjects of open cases, subjects of abuse or neglect investigations in the year before their deaths, and children whose deaths are reported to the department as the result of abuse or neglect. Those reviews come after DCFS has conducted an initial investigation, and they are geared toward preventing future fatalities.
The teams were assigned 161 mandated cases in Fiscal Year 2009 and 164 mandated cases in FY 2010. The teams can also take on cases at their discretion. Teams are required to complete their reviews within 90 days after a DCFS investigation or, if there is no investigation, 90 days after they receive the necessary information. For FY 2010, the department did not complete 70 out of 95 death reviews within 90 days of the DCFS investigation. For cases that DCFS did not investigate, the teams fell short of the 90-day deadline on 51 out of 63 cases. According to DCFS documentation, six deaths from FY 2010 had not been reviewed at the time of the audit.
Kendall Marlowe, spokesperson for DCFS, said part of the holdup is the amount of time it takes county governments to send the death certificates to teams “because we live in a state with 102 counties, and those counties have different resources and different processes.” DCFS has set the goal of having all FY 2010 cases reviewed by July 30.
Besides working to help determine the cause of deaths, the team also makes recommendations for ways to prevent child deaths. Marlowe points to the example of childhood drowning, which is the leading cause for accidental death for children and the second leading cause of accidental death among teenagers. The panels made recommendations that led to May becoming childhood drowning prevention month in the state and a time when DCFS works to educate children and parents.
Auditors said the teams’ inability to meet requirements makes them less effective at such prevention efforts.
The department is also required to begin investigating all potential cases of abuse or neglect within 24 hours of a report. In FY 2010, the department did not begin an investigation within the required time frame for 97 of 67, 377 reports. This number is down from its highest point in the decade, which was 517 cases out of 59,241 in FY 2002. However it has increased from the lowest point in the decade, which was last year, when the department failed to start investigating 83 reports within 24 hours out of 68,732 total reports.
“Failure to respond to a report of abuse or neglect within 24 hours could result in further endangerment to the child and is a violation of the [ Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act,]” the audit said. However auditors noted that the department has shown continual improvement when it comes to responding to reports.
While the department has not reached the 100 percent compliance required by law, Marlowe said great strides have been made in recent years to ensure that it is responding appropriately to reports of abuse. “Reports that come in do not fit any pattern … so it will always be struggle to get to 100 percent compliance.” He noted that reports of abuse are prioritized base on the potential danger to children. “On the more serious cases, we do not hesitate at all. … An investigator is heading out immediately.”
Auditors spot-checked 57 foster care and family case files. Of those files, 37 were missing checklists for initial child placement as well as for long term planning. Ten were missing medical and dental consent forms, seven were missing pictures of children and 13 were missing children’s’ fingerprints. Administrators had failed to review five of the cases.
Auditors noted that DCFS needs more bilingual staff to comply with law and a court order. DCFS is required to have 194 bilingual front line staff members but only had 148 as of March 2010. Marlowe said budget constraints are a factor but the state’s growing Hispanic population has also put bilingual social workers in high demand.
“Spanish speaking populations are growing in parts of the state where they have not before,” Marlowe said. “It’s not a challenge that we will achieve in the very near future. … It has more to do with supply and demand in the social services work force.”
While auditors found 13 problem areas at the agency, the number is down from 15 in the previous audit, and auditors did cite progress in a number of areas. Marlow said federal requirements have pushed DCFS to track its performance on a regular basis. “This is an agency that over the last 10 years has become performance-driven. We measure and analyze our own performance on a continual basis and are not satisfied until we are serving every child and family in the most effective way possible.”