DCFS: A troubled state agency, by the numbers
A never-ending stream of new directors. Numerous high-profile deaths of vulnerable little ones, and scores of others neglected amid bureaucratic inefficiencies. Overworked caseworkers. Lower funding levels than a decade ago. It’s no secret that the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) has been plagued by myriad problems in recent years, but where do the biggest issues lie? We took a look, by the numbers:
Agency funding from state and federal sources dipped to a low of $1.07 billion in 2017. In 2019, funding rose slightly, back to 2012 levels. In 2020 state funding is set to increase by $80 million, with a total appropriation of $1.3 billion, allowing the agency to add 300 more positions, which includes caseworkers, and the development of a “comprehensive child welfare information system.” Roughly $11 million of those additional dollars will be spent on step increases for union workers who belong to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), and cost-of-living adjustments for foster parents and providers.
An analysis of various line items within DCFS’ budget from 2014 (the first year the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget released line-item spreadsheets) to 2019 shows a $70 million increase for foster care funding; a $14 million decrease on institution and group home care; a $1.5 million decrease in counseling; a $6 million decrease to adoption and guardianship services; and a $11 million increase to the Family Preservation Program.
Dan Kotowski, a former state Senate appropriations chairman, who is now the CEO of Childserv, which provides services for children and teens in northern Illinois including counseling, foster care and adoption, applauded recent work by lawmakers, including state Sen. Heather Steans, Rep. Sara Feigenholtz and Rep. Robyn Gabel to increase funding to targeted programs this year, but stresses, "it's going to be difficult to right the wrongs of two decades of agency mismanagement." In recent years, his organization has had to take out loans and rely heavily on private donations to keep afloat.
A blueprint for change
As DCFS has battled diminished funding, it’s also come to terms with significant administrational shortcomings: children lost amid bureaucratic inefficiency, mistakes, gross errors in judgement and the astounding revelation that 98 children whose cases were being handled by the agency died in a single year’s time.
Number of children in DCFS custody (including foster care, institutions or group homes):
- Fiscal Year 2019: 16,026*
- Fiscal Year 2018: 17,465
- Fiscal Year 2017: 16,780
- Fiscal Year 2016: 17,026
- Fiscal Year 2015: 17,507
- Fiscal Year 2014: 17,949
- Fiscal Year 2013: 18,084
- Fiscal Year 2012: 18,466
- FY 2011-1997: Data Not Available
- Fiscal Year 1996: 54,144
- Fiscal Year 1995: 47,862
- Fiscal Year: 1994: 41,161
*Estimated number prior to conclusion of the 2019 fiscal year.
Sources: DCFS reports, Illinois Budget Briefing books, Inspector General’s report on DCFS.
The agency has been so intent on keeping children with their parents that its practice has resulted in putting those children in danger, a study released in mid-May by Chapin Hall, a child welfare think tank at the University of Chicago found. This practice was horrifically illustrated by the recent death of 5-year-old Andrew “A.J.” Freund of Crystal Lake, who was placed in a cold shower and beaten to death in April by his parents, who later dumped his body in a nearby wooded area.
"We don’t have the ability to keep kids safe if we return them to dangerous communities," Kotowski said, recalling a story of one youth that had been moved by DCFS from a ChildServ group home in DuPage County to an independent living site where the boy felt unsafe. He later walked 11 hours back to the group home on his own.
In its report, Chapin Hall suggests streamlining of DCFS’ bureaucratic process by opening up lines of communication between different programs and their workers within the agency. It also suggests reporting data in a clearer, less redundant fashion, better assessing the mental health needs, substance abuse problems and cultural differences of children in care.
DCFS’ has had 13 different directors in the last 10 years. Officials have acknowledged its ever-changing leadership so much so that the first few paragraphs of this year’s agency budget briefing are dedicated to not just outlining the bigger problems the agency faces, but also are admitting that its issues more systemic than specific, and that true improvement will not be achieved through a singular “magic formula.” Instead, the agency’s philosophy for dealing with its issues for the foreseeable future is putting intense focus into specific areas of the system that need much work yet have the most potential for far-reaching positive effects should they be improved upon.
Agency directors since 2006:
In practice, this strategy translates itself into increased funding and staffing for several key areas. Namely, by reducing the number of vacancies in DCFS investigative staff, revamping its relationship with private partners and its own employees by offering longevity payments in certain cases, increasing the available personnel for managing high-risk families and putting greater effort into finding better-adequate homes and treatment for older youths under its care.
The Department has also stated a need to re-engage with stakeholders in order to shake off apathy and ensure every child is getting the treatment they deserve. A mention is also made to the necessity of streamlining the agency’s work to avoid bureaucratic redundancy, which is ultimately keeping social workers from doing their jobs properly.
Kotowski authored a recent op-ed in Streetwise, describing the long hours and low pay that is driving many DCFS case workers from their jobs in Illinois.
"With a caseload of 15 kids, you are never not on the job. It could be a late night trip to the emergency room, an episode requiring psychiatric intervention, a court-mandated visit to a foster or biological parent, transporting a child from school after a meeting with a counselor, or, God forbid, going to the morgue in the early morning to provide support for the family of one of your kids who has been killed by gun violence. If that wasn’t hard enough, you start to realize that your state-funded program, while essential and life-saving, has been suffering through its own form of neglect. In fact, you discover that over the last 17 years in Illinois, with the rate of inflation rising by over 43%, your organization and countless others have received just 5 percent from the state to cover that cost. That means that hundreds of agencies hired by the state of the Illinois to keep over 17,000 kids safe have been compelled to borrow and beg for millions of dollars or close their doors because the state has failed to provide them and their case managers with the resources necessary to achieve the best outcome through their jobs."
DCFS has also made a commitment to improve its technology. The systems currently in use to archive and keep track of its cases are considered obsolete, and thus there are now plans to create a “Comprehensive Child Welfare Information System,” which is described as a “repository of all DCFS child welfare data." This is expected to be a multi-year effort to be funded both by state and federal funds. Until then, the state’s Office of Information Technology Services is expected to update the agency’s current system to get it better up to recognized standards.
Many of these efforts are also directed at tackling what may be the DCFS’s biggest objective problem: the fact that Illinois has the worst permanency numbers in the nation. “Permanency” is a term used in social work to describe an instance when a child is either reunited with his or her birth family or adopted by a different one, exiting the temporary care system and establishing the child in a stable household, hopefully permanently. In Illinois, children stay under the DCFS’s care for 23.2 months on average before achieving permanency. By comparison, New York, the next state over on the ranking, has an average of 20 months while Colorado comes out on top with only 7.9 months. Increased funding and staffing could improve that statistic, adding more social workers to appropriately deal with cases and funding to support them, and at the same time that the Department is promising study new ways to improve permanency for its wards, the children of DCFS.
At the beginning of his tenure, Gov. J.B. Pritzker pledged to revitalize DCFS, through new leadership and the strategies outlined above. Ultimately, the language behind the 2020 Budget Briefing is redemptive: there is an admittance of previous incompetence, and a promise to redress it. What remains to be seen is if the agency will be able to do so.
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