Despite deep state budget cuts, the state’s child-welfare agency has reached an agreement with a watchdog group to lower caseloads for frontline workers who investigate critical hotline calls alleging abuse and neglect.
The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services plans to add more than 100 investigator positions under an agreement reached Tuesday with the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.
At the same time, DCFS will temporarily rehire some recent retirees and reassign about 100 current employees from other jobs to focus on abuse and neglect cases.
Under a 1991 federal consent decree, the ACLU represents all children in the state’s foster care system.
“Conditions inside DCFS had reached a tipping point,” said Benjamin Wolf, associate legal director of the ACLU of Illinois. “Recent budget cuts, combined with a degradation of frontline services over the past years, threaten to wipe out important gains made in reforming the system in the past two decades. The plan presented in court … is an important step toward reversing that trend.”
DCFS admitted it was in violation of the consent decree that, among other reforms, set monthly limits on new cases for investigators to no more than 12 a month.
For three months of the year, the number is allowed to climb to 15.
In March, a Tribune analysis of DCFS data showed widespread noncompliance with caseloads too high across the state.
Investigators told the newspaper that because they are so busy handling cases where a child’s safety appears most at risk, they often don’t have time to address less critical cases.
The Tribune also reported problems with the agency’s hotline and day care licensing unit. Recent child deaths have raised concerns about whether warnings signs were missed.
Due to an estimated $90 million cut to DCFS’ $1 billion budget, hundreds of workers have received layoff notices.
As a result, DCFS Director Richard Calica has cut some preventative programs and eliminated middle-management positions that he considered wasteful.
Gov. Patrick Quinn has pledged to restore more than $50 million of the DCFS funds, but needs lawmakers to sign off on his controversial plan to close some state prisons and other facilities so that the savings could be diverted to DCFS.
The investigative caseload problem had persisted for years. In fact, in late 2008, DCFS Inspector General Denise Kane wrote then Gov. Rod Blagojevich seeking a solution to a problem that she said put vulnerable children at further risk.
Cook County Public Guardian Robert Harris lauded the plan, but he noted the progress comes at the expense of the other key DCFS services and questioned why it took this long to reduce investigators’ burden.
“I’m glad they’re filling a need because we know the investigative unit needs help, but I suspect the problem has existed for at least five years,” Harris said. “I question if they’ve been monitoring the statistics why they didn’t fix the problem a lot sooner.”
The state’s largest public employees union agreed the plan falls far short of real change. DCFS employed 4,200 workers in 2001, compared to less than 2,600 after the planned layoffs.
“Hiring just 100 investigators is far short of what’s needed to reverse years of devastating cuts that left employees struggling with unmanageable caseloads, and as Tribune reporting revealed, is forcing thousands of hotline callers to leave messages due to lack of staff,” said Anders Lindall, spokesman of theAmerican Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “If intact services are wiped out, more children will be harmed, families pulled apart and tax dollars expended on foster care.”
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