More than two years after the death of Sema’j Crosby, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services has continued working on the reforms implemented after her case made headlines.
In the aftermath of the toddler’s death, the agency’s leadership pledged to improve its hiring practices, especially at the Joliet office, to ensure the staffing numbers were adequate to handle a large caseload.
Jassen Strokosch, the director of communications for DCFS, said past month that the Joliet office has all but two of its 31 caseworker positions filled. He said that Gov. JB Pritzker’s administration also has done much to help improve DCFS.
Strokosch said Pritzker increased the number of positions the agency could hire by about 300 statewide for jobs related to investigations and operating the DCFS hotline, or wherever the need for more people is greatest. He added that in the past, it had been difficult to manage the work with lower headcounts and funding.
Nearly half those positions have been filled and they are working on filling the rest. In about six months, he said, the agency will really start to feel the effect of added positions in handling the number of cases it oversees.
“As you can imagine, one of the only ways to actually move the needle on those caseloads is to add more staff,” he said. “There’s not a magic way to make the workload go away.”
The Illinois Auditor General conducted a performance audit of DCFS to view and assess the department’s protocols for investigating reports of child abuse and neglect in fiscal 2015, fiscal 2016 and fiscal 2017.
During that time, the number of abuse and neglect investigations increased significantly, according to the report, going from 67,732 in fiscal 2015 to 75,037 in fiscal 2017, a 10.8% increase.
Strokosch confirmed that DCFS has experienced a steady increase in calls over the past five years or so, about a quarter or more of which turn into investigations. In fact, he said, June was one of the highest months of total new investigations the agency has had in many years.
“There’s definitely an uptick there,” he said.
Although Strokosch said he hesitated to attribute the uptick to any one factor, DCFS has tended to see more calls after a high-profile case, such as the deaths of Sema’j Crosby in 2017 and Crystal Lake 5-year-old AJ Freund in April.
When Pritzker announced his pick of Joliet resident Marc Smith as the new head of DCFS in March, he also announced a comprehensive review of the agency by Chapin Hall, an independent policy research center at the University of Chicago.
Chapin Hall’s study found “systemic factors that have influenced the outcomes in individual cases of child deaths and critical incidents.”
The review came up with a list of nine recommendations to address issues such as developing and refining protocol for closing cases with third-party groups working with families.
Strokosch said DCFS has made changes to improve how it shared information on cases over longer periods of time with third-party contractors.
Sharing information was a key concern in Crosby’s death.
A 2017 review chronicled how, despite 11 reports being filed about the house where she lived in Joliet Township, it wasn’t clear if allegations of abuse or the condition of the house were clearly communicated between DCFS investigators and third-party workers.
That communication is significant, especially since, according to Strokosch, in Illinois, about 80% of the child welfare services DCFS is involved with are privatized.
“That has some advantages and it has some challenges,” he said.
Some of those third-party nonprofits are some of the oldest in the state and have been involved in child welfare longer than DCFS has existed.
They can also provide more comprehensive “wraparound” services that DCFS cannot.
The Chapin Hall review also recommended working with the court system and state’s attorney’s offices to refine the criteria for removing children in complex and chronic family cases.
Although acting deputy director for child protection Tierney Stutz said DCFS began to retrain its workers on how to determine if a child should be placed into the foster care system, that decision also depends on judges and state’s attorney’s offices.
Stutz said meeting with state’s attorneys in different regions has been enlightening, because the threshold for removing a child from a home could be very different in a Chicago area court than in one in central or southern Illinois.
She also said that when she talks to DCFS investigators, she emphasizes that they’re not alone in the decision making process.
In a sense, she said, when investigators present their findings on a case to a state’s attorney, they’re asking for another opinion to make the best possible informed decision.
“We are a beautiful system of checks and balances,” Stutz said.