Fred Pennix recently drove into Chicago's crime-ridden Englewood neighborhood to check on two of the nearly 40 families under his watch as a state child-protection investigator. It was a holiday but, worried about the children's safety, he was going to knock on a few doors anyway.
Pennix figured he would have a better chance of catching the uncooperative adults at home on a day they might not be expecting him. One case involved domestic abuse, the other a mother who wasn't taking proper care of her special-needs children.
The Vietnam veteran isn't easily rattled, but these days Pennix feels so stressed he can't remember the faces of his young clients, much less their names, he said. His caseload should be half of what it is, Pennix said.
"How do I juggle the safety of all these kids and, God forbid, something happens in one of the cases?" said Pennix, an 18-year veteran of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. "It's like Russian roulette."
DCFS is violating critical terms of a 1991 federal consent decree that, among other reforms, set monthly limits on new cases for investigators, the Tribune has learned.
A newspaper analysis using DCFS data shows investigative caseloads are too high across the state, with the biggest trouble spots in Cook County, Chicago's collar counties and southern Illinois.
Investigators say they should handle about 24 cases at any one time, but the number is often in the 40s and climbing, the newspaper determined.
Worries about heavy caseloads and other issues come amid the deaths of two Chicago-area children that raised concerns about whether DCFS investigators missed crucial warning signs and didn't do enough to protect the victims. After examining records, the Tribune has reported on apparent missteps and communication breakdowns in both deaths.
Kendall Marlowe, a DCFS spokesman, said it would be a mistake to attribute such tragedies to current worker caseloads.
"It's too easy of an explanation," Marlowe said. "If that were the only reason, then hiring more workers would solve all problems, and it won't."
But Cook County Public Guardian Robert Harris and other experts say heavy work requirements are bound to have an impact.
"If investigators are this overworked, they're going to make errors," Harris said. "It's a recipe for disaster."
Benjamin Wolf, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, said the caseloads are the worst in several years. As the ACLU's lead counsel in a federal lawsuit that resulted in the consent decree, Wolf said he will take DCFS back to court if it doesn't lower caseloads soon.
"It's impossible to function at this level," said Wolf, looking over a recent monthly update that showed some investigators juggling 60 or more pending cases. "I think there's a serious risk to children if we don't address this soon."
Officials with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31, which represents many DCFS employees, said the agency has failed to fill hundreds of funded vacancies. DCFS officials said they had fewer than 60 openings.
The staffing shortages come as the newly named director of DCFS, Richard Calica, takes over during a sobering state fiscal crisis.
Calica agreed that caseload levels are too high and said he has started taking steps to reduce them. He has frozen hiring in new positions unrelated to child protection and said he plans to add 125 front-line positions, partly through new hires and partly through shifting agency workers.
"I don't believe safety will be compromised," Calica said. "We will continue to manage our cases in such a way that we will not take unrealistic risks with the lives or the safety of children based on economics."
Several high-profile DCFS tragedies in the 1990s came to symbolize Illinois' child welfare system, widely recognized at the time as the country's worst.
It began with 3-year-old Joseph Wallace in April 1993. His mentally ill mother tied an extension cord around his neck, waved goodbye and kicked a stool out from under his small frame in their Chicago apartment. In February 1994, Chicago police found 19 children living in a squalid West Side apartment. Both cases had long DCFS involvement.
After reforms, triggered in part by lawsuits, Illinois reduced the number of children in state care from 52,000 in 1997 to about 15,240, the current level.
Pennix and Earl Modesto, of Madison County, in southwestern Illinois, were part of an aggressive DCFS hiring effort in the 1990s aimed at clearing out backlogs. So was Stephen Mittons, who investigates reports of child abuse and neglect in northern Cook County.
The three men told the Tribune they haven't seen caseloads this high since they started in the mid-1990s. They and other DCFS investigators spoke to the newspaper while off duty.
"To me, they're setting us up for failure," said Modesto, a former Arizona police officer. "I understand now what the people were going through when I started. They were just worn out, which is what you got now. We're just running from call to call.
"This is the kind of job where you've got to get away from it or you're going to make bad decisions. They're working people to death and putting kids in jeopardy."
Modesto said he recently was assigned 13 new cases in just seven days.
"Nobody has a crystal ball," he said. "There's no such thing as being 100 percent safe, but if we can't get to the kid and properly assess what's going on, don't tell me that doesn't impact public safety."
Under the federal consent decree, DCFS violates the rules if an investigator is assigned more than 12 new cases a month. For three months of the year, that number may go up to 15. Since investigators must close out their cases within two months, the theory is they will not juggle more than about 24 combined cases at one time.
A Tribune survey of investigator caseloads showed widespread noncompliance. In Cook County, for example, 80 percent of 126 investigators were assigned more cases than allowed during at least one month last year. A majority of them had caseloads that were too high for several months, records show.
Investigators said that because they are so busy putting out fires in the worst cases, where a child's safety appears most at risk, they barely have time to address less critical cases.
State law requires an investigator to decide within 60 days whether a hotline allegation is unfounded or credible. If investigators can't make a determination within that time frame, the case is classified as "undetermined," and they may seek a 30-day extension.
"I've had more 'undetermined' cases in the last 12 months than I've had in my entire career, and that is not an exaggeration," Mittons said.
A Tribune analysis shows undetermined cases climbed from 10 percent of the total in June to 22 percent in January. Many still were pending at 90 days.
Investigators such as John Bowman in the DCFS region that serves the Metro East area that includes East St. Louis said workers are keeping cases open longer because they can't get back to them to make that one last phone call, or knock on one more door, to ensure a child's safety.
Bowman and others said the department's monthly worker caseload reports are based on averages and often don't take into account changing staff levels due to attrition, vacations, sick leaves and other factors. Bowman said he had more than 80 pending cases recently.
"They've known for months we're in dire need," said Bowman, a 10-year investigator with a master's degree in social work. "Children have gotten lost in the bureaucratic numbers game that is played by DCFS."
On a recent weeknight, Bowman said he was jolted awake at 2:15 a.m. with worry about a young boy in one of his cases. Was the boy being abused right now? Bowman wondered.
"I don't know if he's alive right now," he said. "I think I average four to five hours of sleep a night.
"The longer investigations remain open, the higher the likelihood that child may be abused or neglected. That's just common sense. We mainly just have time to go out and see the alleged victim and maybe follow up with a couple other people. We don't have time to make referrals for families that truly need help because we're out here just trying to keep up."
He said his agency should be "under judicial supervision if they're blatantly going to ignore the rules and do whatever they want. It truly would make Illinois better."
"I truly believe that caseloads are tied to the likelihood of children dying," Bowman said.
DCFS in recent weeks has sent special teams of investigators to try to clear backlogs in East St. Louis and other southern Illinois regions. Calica said he anticipates improvements will continue in the coming months.
Two dead children
In Illinois, 77 children die of abuse or neglect a year, according to a 30-year average.
The victims are beaten, shot, shaken, stabbed and starved. They die in their homes, hospital beds or the streets, and authorities estimate up to 25 percent had prior DCFS contact.
Crescencio "Christopher" Valdez was one of them.
His battered body was found the day after Thanksgiving in his Gage Park home. Prosecutors allege his mother's boyfriend beat Christopher while she watched without intervening. It was the boy's fourth birthday. Both adults face first-degree murder charges.
Documents obtained by the Tribune showed the investigator missed key elements of the parallel police investigation into previous alleged abuse and accepted the mother's explanation for his injuries despite medical experts' suspicions.
In a possible violation of another federal consent decree, a bilingual investigator wasn't available to interview the Hispanic family with limited English skills, forcing the investigator to use a call-in interpreter service, union officials said. Marlowe said he could not confirm that account. The agency has long struggled to employ more Spanish-speaking investigators.
Doctors suspected prior abuse in the case of a Midlothian toddler, Lavandis Hudson, 2, and made a hotline call to DCFS in June, the Tribune reported last week. But after 48 hours, the mother was allowed to take the child home. He was beaten to death three weeks later, officials allege.
The boy's mother, Marles Blackman, 37, of Calumet Park, was arrested Wednesday on a charge of first-degree murder.
By the time the two boys had come to the attention of DCFS last summer, the investigators had been assigned more cases than allowed at least once in the prior seven months, according to department data.
The number of children slain each year has been flat for decades, DCFS' Marlowe said. More encouragingly, the percentage of repeat maltreatment cases has dropped in Illinois from 8.4 percent in March 2005 to 6.5 in September 2011 — still about 1 percentage point above the national standard.
But DCFS Inspector General Denise Kane repeatedly has cited high investigative caseloads as a reason that discipline of workers should be mitigated in child-death cases investigated by her office.
Kane and the ACLU's Wolf share the workers' concerns about the accuracy of monthly caseload reports and have asked for a better accounting.
Wolf said the caseload numbers are "dangerously high."
"We can't keep responding to crisis," he said. "We have to have a plan."
Pennix, the investigator in Englewood, said, "When something happens to a kid under a worker's watch, they're devastated.
"You read the newspaper (when a child is killed) and look for an address and think, 'Oh thank God, it's not one of mine.' There's a sigh of relief.
"None of us are lazy. We do this because we care about kids and their families. But we are human beings, and human beings have their limitations."
Tribune reporters Ray Long and Monique Garcia contributed.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times