The state's child welfare agency has reached an agreement with a watchdog group to lower troubling caseload levels for workers who investigate hotline calls alleging abuse and neglect.
The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services plans to add more than 100 investigators to help ease the problem under a plan announced Wednesday with the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. In March, the Tribune reported that investigator caseloads across the state were higher than allowed under a 1991 federal consent decree.
The decree was the result of a federal lawsuit brought by the ACLU on behalf of all children in the state's foster care system.
"Conditions inside DCFS had reached a tipping point," said Benjamin Wolf, the ACLU of Illinois' associate legal director.
"Recent budget cuts, combined with a degradation of front-line services over the past years, threaten to wipe out important gains made in reforming the system in the past two decades," Wolf said.
By Jan. 1, DCFS expects to reach acceptable caseload levels of no more than 12 new cases a month per worker. For three months of the year, the number is allowed to climb to 15.
Until the new investigative positions are filled, agency officials have offered 75-day contracts to recent retirees and have temporarily reassigned about 100 current employees for two months to focus on abuse and neglect investigations.
Investigators have told the Tribune 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 backlog led to thousands of overdue investigations.
The newspaper 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.
Because of an estimated $90 million cut to DCFS' $1.2 billion budget, hundreds of workers have received layoff notices. After an agency reorganization and the elimination of unfilled jobs, officials estimate about 300 of the agency's 2,900 employees will lose their jobs.
DCFS Director Richard Calica also plans to cut back some key prevention programs, including intact family services. That program connects troubled families with community resources so children don't have to be removed from their homes.
Many, including Calica, worry that investigators will take more children into protective custody without that safety net.
Gov. Pat Quinn pledged to restore more than $50 million of the DCFS money, but he needs lawmakers to approve his controversial plan to close some state prisons and other facilities so the savings could be diverted to DCFS.
The investigative caseload problem had persisted for years at DCFS. Cook County Public Guardian Robert Harris lauded any progress but questioned why it took so long to reduce the 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 employee union agreed that the plan falls far short of real change.
"Hiring just 100 investigators is far short of what's needed to reverse years of devastating cuts that left employees struggling with unmanageable caseloads," said Anders Lindall, spokesman of theAmerican Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
The cuts also have affected hotline services, he said.
"As Tribune reporting revealed, (the agency) is forcing thousands of hotline callers to leave messages due to lack of staff," Lindall said.