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Report: DCFS practice intended to 'preserve families' could be putting children at risk

DCFS practice to ‘preserve families’ could put children at risk, report says

Dr. Dana Weiner, a policy fellow at Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, explains the policy research center's findings after they conducted a comprehensive review of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services' Intact Family Services program during a briefing on Monday morning, May 13, 2019, at DCFS Emerald office, at 6201 South Emerald Dr., in Chicago.
Dr. Dana Weiner, a policy fellow at Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, explains the policy research center's findings after they conducted a comprehensive review of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services' Intact Family Services program during a briefing on Monday morning, May 13, 2019, at DCFS Emerald office, at 6201 South Emerald Dr., in Chicago.

An Illinois Department of Child and Family Services practice intended to “preserve families” could be putting children at risk, according to an independent report detailing the functionality of DCFS’ in-home services.

Questions have swirled about the agency’s involvement with 5-year-old Crystal Lake boy, AJ Freund, after the boy’s parents, JoAnn Cunningham and Andrew Freund Sr., were charged with beating their son to death and concealing his body for several days before burying him in the woods.

As critics of DCFS place blame on the agency for failing to remove AJ from the 94 Dole Ave. home where he died, a new report highlights several shortcomings in what is known as Intact Family Services, or in-home services that link DCFS-referred families to community assistance and educational tools.

Among those areas that could use improvement is a department tendency not to remove children from their homes, and instead, refer cases to the private and often over-worked agencies that provide intact services, according to the report.

The report, prepared by University of Chicago’s independent policy research center, Chapin Hall, was presented Monday morning at DCFS’ Chicago office. Researchers analyzed reports from the Office of the Inspector General for DCFS and reviewed three recent child deaths – two of which occurred amid open Intact cases. The third death involved a child who was not receiving intact services and was returned to her mother’s custody.

Chapin Hall policy fellow Dana A. Weiner declined to say which child deaths specifically were analyzed.

What are Intact Family Services?

When DCFS privatized its Intact services in 2012, it entered contracts with third-party agencies, often
nonprofits, to help link families to educational and community resources, DCFS spokesman Jassen Strokosch said.

Those families are offered services including in-home counseling, crisis response and treatment programs at no cost, according to the report. Although Intact services typically are voluntary, they also can be court-ordered.

While a general presumption against putting children in foster care began to permeate throughout the state, DCFS investigators turned to Intact services as a means to avoid removing juveniles from their homes.

DCFS now refers about 80% of its cases to those private providers, and as a result, the agency maintained oversight only on cases deemed “high risk.”

“Though they are often in compliance with the prescribed rate of 15 new investigations per month, this is the equivalent of an investigator receiving a new case nearly every other day,” according to the report.

Foster care in Illinois

The number of children in substitute care, including foster care, in Illinois, has varied since the late 1980s.

In 1985, the state had about 14,000 children in foster care, according to a 2011 study by the Child Welfare Collaborative at the University of Illinois at Chicago. That number jumped to 51,000 in 1997, and then declined to about 15,000 in 2010, according to the study.

Illinois now boasts the lowest foster care entry rate in the nation –
1.5 children per 1,000 children in the population, Chapin Hall policy fellow Weiner said. The state’s high threshold for child removal, however, could keep some cases from rising to the attention they deserve.

“Today where we stand, people believe there is a kind of avoidance, that everybody in the system will avoid a removal,” Weiner said.

Other than a situation requiring short-term protective custody, DCFS does not take children into custody or release them from custody without a judge’s order, Strokosch has said. The agency must weigh the benefit of removing a child from their home with the potential trauma the situation could cause, he said.

What we know about DCFS contact with AJ and Sema’j

As details about DCFS’ involvement with AJ’s family have emerged, the community has questioned why the young boy was allowed to remain in a home where DCFS had previously conducted several investigations. DCFS’ acting director, Marc D. Smith, who was appointed to the position by Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s officer on April 15, has declined to speak directly about AJ’s case, or provide details about any individual DCFS case.

Although DCFS had multiple contacts with the family regarding allegations of child neglect and abuse, several of those claims were unfounded, and the family was not receiving Intact services – which typically are reserved for cases that involve substantiated claims, Weiner said.

Dirty conditions within the home might not have been enough to separate AJ from his parents, either.

“That is not an instantaneous reason to remove a child from a home,” Smith said. “The expectation is that the investigator would work with the family to see what the underlying issues were …”

If the home environment presents an immediate health or safety risk, however, the child could either be removed from the home or an investigator would work with the family to establish a safety plan, Smith said.

In the case of 1-year-old Joliet Township girl, Sema’j Crosby, an Intact Family Services case had been opened to assist Sema’j’s family in September 2016, after child protection investigations regarding the children not being properly supervised, DCFS records show.

Intact stepped in to help Sema’j’s mother, Sheri Gordon, who failed to participate with several attempts at intervention, possibly because of a cognitive or learning disability, according to DCFS records.

Sema’j was reported to appear safe in her family’s care hours before the report of her disappearance on
April 25, 2017. The infant girl was found in her home the following day.

What’s next

While DCFS continues to investigate AJ’s death, Weiner recommended a series of actions the agency should take over the next 1 years. Specifically, Weiner suggested DCFS partner with state’s attorneys to discuss possible legislation that would directly address the removal of children who have experienced multiple incidents of abuse.

She also recommended that DCFS better explain the roles and expectations of staff, who sometimes are more focused on complying with investigation procedures rather than engaging the family, according to the report.

Officials with Illinois’ child-welfare agency are in the process reviewing cases involving the state’s youngest children in which caseworkers found insufficient evidence of abuse or neglect, the Associated Press reported.

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