SPRINGFIELD — With Christmas just days away, the state Capitol is largely quiet. But some legislators say this is the exact time to think of children in the state’s care.
State Rep. Patti Bellock, R-Hinsdale, called reports of physical and sexual violence within the state’s child welfare agency “an absolute tragedy.”
She said an upcoming hearing to examine the problems at the Department of Children and Family Services could mark the start of a bipartisan effort to greatly improve child protection in Illinois.
State Rep. John Cabello, R-Machesney Park, another member of the House Human Services committee examining the issues, agrees change is needed, including making child protection a true state priority.
DCFS has long been underfunded and understaffed and leadership at the top has too often changed, Cabello said.
“I’ve worked with a number of DCFS people, caseworkers, in my area. I can tell you they are committed to doing what is right, committed to doing the most they can with that they have,” said the Rockford police detective, who is on leave while he serves in the General Assembly.
“They do the best they can with what they have, but what are we going to do — work them 24 hours a day?”
Cabello said his district is among those with an outsized need for DCFS services, and he wants an in-depth look into the agency — from funding to practices to management.
And if state spending diminishes, as expected, Cabello said the state must simply decide what needs to be funded and what does not.
He said looking after Illinois’ elderly, children, disabled, education and infrastructure as among the true musts.
“How about we fund what’s absolutely necessary and cut the fluff?” Cabello said.
State Rep. Mike Smiddy, D-Hillsdale, said the General Assembly has a duty to look into reports of problems at DCFS.
“We need to be doing everything we can to ensure the safety and well-being of the children under the state’s care,” he said.
State Rep. Patti Bellock, R-Hinsdale, cited a recent auditor general’s look into specific practices in DCFS, which was made at the request of the Legislature. It showed, among other things:
DCFS did not have reports for management on the total number of its missing wards during the year.
DCFS estimated 2,800 to 3,100 wards went missing 26,500 to 29,200 times during 2011 and 2012 (combined).
Caseworkers sometimes were first to learn of a missing ward but did not inform the department’s Child Location and Support Unit.
There was a lack of documentation to indicate if supervisory review of missing child cases had been performed.
DCFS came under a bright spotlight this month 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.
The House Human Services committee is set to convene at 10 a.m. Jan. 7 at the Bilandic Building in Chicago.
Bellock has called for and says she believes there will be bipartisan support for a top-to-bottom review of DCFS. She said a bipartisan task force or special legislative committee might be needed.
While she understands DCFS has longstanding issues, inadequate funding among them, Bellock said, “This is unconscionable. These children are in our care.
“Did we (the state) take some of these kids from a bad situation and expose them to worse? Were some coming from a home where the care was simply not adequate and we put them in a setting where they became targets?”
DCFS declined to take questions on the issues but re-issued an earlier statement from Acting Director Bobbie Gregg:
“As caretaker to approximately 1,300 children and young people being treated in residential facilities, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services has zero tolerance for the allegations of abuse, neglect and negligence outlined by” the newspaper series.
“We have taken swift action to begin remedying both the individual and systemic issues that jeopardize the safety of those in our care. We will continue to collaborate with stakeholders in the child welfare system to improve the quality of services and use our collective resources to better the lives of children in care.”
Mark Fitton is a reporter for the Illinois News Network.