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DCFS director talks reforms, remaining challenges at community forum

Beverly Walker, director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, fields questions from community leaders and the public Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017, at St. John Missionary Baptist Church in Joliet, Ill.
Beverly Walker, director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, fields questions from community leaders and the public Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017, at St. John Missionary Baptist Church in Joliet, Ill.

JOLIET – The director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, Beverly “BJ” Walker, was in Joliet on Tuesday to talk to community members about reforms implemented in the months after Sema’j Crosby’s death.

The forum was at St. John Missionary Baptist Church and organized by the members of SAFE (Safety Alliance for Families Everywhere). Walker answered questions from various community members for two hours. They touched on reforms already taking place within DCFS, as well as remaining challenges.

“I’m impressed,” said Loretta Westbrooks, a member of SAFE. “I really think she’s going to make changes, but I’m going to be there to watch to make sure that the changes are being made.”

Staffing and workload

One of the main issues Walker addressed was the need for more caseworkers, specifically at the DCFS office in Joliet, as well as reforming hiring practices.

Walker said eight newly hired investigators started work Monday. Four more caseworkers will be starting within the next 30 days.

DCFS is trying to not just keep up with the rate of turnover of caseworkers, but to better anticipate vacancies and replace them quickly by hiring more than they might need at one time. Walker described the process as hiring with a “pipeline mentality.”

While Walker could not say how many caseworkers currently were in the Joliet office, there still are three vacancies to be filled, as well as two vacancies for bilingual caseworkers.

“That, for me, would fill the Joliet office with 100 percent staffing,” Walker said about filling those remaining vacancies.

In the meantime, DCFS is sending about nine workers from other regions to work in Joliet while new staff members are being hired and trained. They also are bringing on retired caseworkers for up to 75 days in a year to pick up the slack of about 12 to 15 cases a worker.

There also are challenges for DCFS’ contractor agencies, such as Intact Family Services, which performs short-term in-home intervention programs for families who have come to the attention of DCFS.

The type of workers these agencies hire are typically younger, less experienced recent college graduates. They also have a very high turnover rate because of low pay and workers applying to better paid jobs within DCFS after they acquire the minimum two years of experience.

Communication and data

Walker also highlighted changes and difficulties with communication and sharing of data between DCFS, its contractor agencies and other relevant partners, such as police departments.

“It has amazed me,” Walker said. “We do not have a central, coordinated point of data management. We are not managed by our data. We fly blind.”

DCFS formed a group to accumulate all the data it collects to help its investigators on the front end. DCFS also has sought technical support on how to better measure or even determine what to measure to help caseworkers, although Walker admits these changes will take time to implement.

Investigators also will be going out on high-risk cases with the contracted agencies such as Intact Family Services.

Walker pointed out this issue was at the heart of Sema’j’s case because, according to the DCFS report released in May, since 2015, there were 11 reports filed related to that household. The report stated it was not clear that all pertinent information regarding Sema’j and her siblings’ mother and caregivers in the house was clarified and processed between DCFS investigators and the Intact caseworker.

Many to blame

While Walker talked about what DCFS was doing in terms of reforms, she wanted to be clear about the multiple, complex factors which led to the death of Sema’j.

“It’s easy, given what has happened, to put DCFS out front and say, ‘We should have done [something],’ ” Walker said. “There are multiple parties that should have done something different.”

She wanted the community to understand the many complexities DCFS deals with to determine whether to take a child from their home and family. Walker insisted that while many are to blame for Sema’j’s death, she wants DCFS to do what it can to change.

“We’re not always going to get it right,” Walker said. “But we should always be accountable when we get it wrong, and you should try to hold us accountable.”

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