Amid scrutiny after the death of a 5-year-old Crystal Lake boy, a report released Tuesday found Illinois Department of Children and Family Services investigators took on more cases than allowed as the number of cases spiked, a situation that often led to other lapses.
The Auditor General’s report showed investigations spiked, causing the hotline and caseworkers to be overloaded beyond what a court-order required. The department conducted more than 75,000 investigations of child abuse or neglect in fiscal year 2017, according to audit findings.
The audit found that more than half of the hotline calls that came into the department (55.7 percent) were not immediately fielded and required a callback. In the same year, more than 12 percent of investigations were not completed within 60 days.
The report was ordered by lawmakers in 2017 after the high-profile death of a Joliet child under the supervision of DCFS.
The department responded to the findings Tuesday afternoon.
“Under this administration and leadership team, DCFS welcomes the Auditor General's findings and is fully committed to making substantial changes in how our agency serves vulnerable children and families,” Acting Director Marc Smith said in a statement. “That is why we have already begun moving forward on these recommendations. Nothing is more important than getting this work right, and the findings show serious lapses and problems. 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.”
Department officials said they have added additional hotline employees and refined procedures to more efficiently handle cases.
Lawmakers announced new legislation Tuesday that sponsor Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, D-Chicago, said will require more accountability and oversight for DCFS cases.
“We want to make sure that there are other sets of eyes on these cases that are so difficult,” she said.
The bill would require internal reviews on certain cases to ensure that the findings are sound and would prohibit incentives in decision-making for families, meaning agencies will not be metered by cases being referred to a court.
Feigenholtz said that the existing organizational structure of DCFS requires all problem reporting to go to the director of operations, a position that’s been vacant for what she said was “a very long time.”
State Sen. Robert Peters, a Chicago Democrat who grew up in a foster family while his mother struggled with drug addiction, said fixing the problems at the agency will take more than a year.
“I want to see an Illinois where we don’t have these stories anymore so I’m not seen as an exception because I’m not exceptional,” he said.
The lawmakers said more money would be needed to help the understaffed department and were confident they would come to an agreement in the budget process to find what’s needed.
The report and calls for change come after 5-year-old Crystal Lake boy Andrew “A.J.” Freund Jr. was found in a shallow grave despite DCFS making dozens of contacts with the boy's parents and receiving several warnings about abuse. Prosecutors have charged the parents with murder.