It was déjà vu for some state legislators Wednesday as they heard reports of ineptitude within the state’s child welfare agency that left wards of the state open to neglect, abuse and crime.
In one instance, a 14-year-old girl who had run away from a suburban treatment center tried to return but was refused entrance, said Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who testified before a special legislative committee in Chicago.
At the time the girl was being trafficked by a pimp, said Dart, whose department intervened.
State Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, said in a telephone interview he was disgusted by the reports of abuse and lack of accountability he’s heard.
“My view is that we critically need a new director, and I know that will happen soon with Gov. Rauner,” McSweeney said.
State Rep. John Cabello, R-Machesney Park, a member of the joint legislative committee, said the General Assembly “absolutely” has to give the Department of Children and Family Services a top-to-bottom examination and ensure better performance.
“We have to look at what’s falling through the cracks, and in this case that’s children,” Cabello said. “The kids are the ones having to live through this, and it’s another case where the grownups are proving they don’t care.”
Cabello’s remarks, which came after the hearing on problems within DCFS’ residential treatment program, dovetailed with those of state Rep. Mary Flowers, D-Chicago, and Dart, a former state legislator.
Dart recalled working with Flowers 20 years ago on nearly identical issues.
“Here we are 20 years later and nothing’s changed,” he testified. “This is horribly broken system. Fix it.”
Said Flowers, “For years I have seen children destroyed by a system intended to save them.”
Testimony and lawmaker questions focused on problem areas within DCFS and the roughly 50 contracted residential centers that serve about 1,200 wards of the state.
Data on unusual incidents is not stored, shared or tracked in a meaningful way. For instance, DCFS has 50-some codes for unusual incidents, but those include practically anything from a hangnail to human trafficking. Major cases are mixed in with minor, and there’s little tracking of trends or recognition of systemic problems.
Accountability is next to nonexistent. Dart said he couldn’t imagine telling a judge or voters that he simply didn’t know how many stabbings or fights occurred at his jail and still expect to continue in office. But at DCFS, “Don’t know; we don’t track that,” seemed to be a frequent answer.
A culture within contracted agencies and DCFS that focuses on little but marking down unusual incidents and keeping them in house — but away the department’s top brass and even from law-enforcement agencies offering help.
Incredible employee turnover in the child protection system, from treatment center employees making minimum wage to a revolving door in the office of the director.
In fact, Acting Director Bobbie Gregg on Wednesday said she’d been informed by the incoming Bruce Rauner administration that she would not be in the post beyond Jan. 19.
Gregg, appointed by Gov. Pat Quinn in March, said she was the seventh director in four years.
That has to change, Cabello said.
Cycles of crisis “just cannot continue to be the case anymore,” he said. “DCFS has to have a foundation.”
DCFS came under a bright spotlight late last year after a Chicago Tribune investigation found that from 2011 through 2013, state facilities reported 428 cases of sexual assault or abuse and 1,052 physical assaults. A subsequent auditor general’s report requested by the General Assembly showed massive gaps in DCFS’ record keeping and tracking systems.
Gregg on Wednesday briefly covered some of the emergency measures she’s put in place to address the problems raised in the newspaper reports and auditor general’s findings.
Legislators and several expert witnesses thanked Gregg for her service and said they were sorry to hear of her departure.
Mark Fitton is a reporter for the Illinois News Network.