Clifford Triplett understands the impact his tortured past had on Illinois' child-welfare system and doesn't want to see it lose ground.
As a 5-year-old, he was burned with cigarettes, whipped with a belt buckle and starved for months. Finally taken to a hospital on Thanksgiving Day 1993, he weighed just 18 pounds.
It was later learned that an investigator with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services left the emaciated boy in his South Side home despite repeated hotline calls.
"You didn't see kids starved like that, not in Chicago, not in our city," said Cook County Public Guardian Robert Harris. "People were really struck by this case."
Other child-abuse cases from nearly two decades ago underscored how DCFS failed to ensure that children under its supervision weren't harmed. Joseph Wallace, 3, was hanged by his mentally ill mother in 1993. And in February 1994, 19 children were found in squalor in a Keystone Avenue flat, prompting then-President
to compare the scene to conditions in Calcutta.
The grim stories shocked the Chicago area and the nation, galvanizing efforts to reform how the state cared for some of its most vulnerable residents — reforms that some experts say are now in serious jeopardy.
Triplett, now 23, still remembers everything, he said.
"It's the kind of thing you never forget, no matter how old you get or how hard you try," he said. "I've still got some of the marks."
What happened to Triplett is hauntingly similar to the more recent case of Darlene Armstrong, a severely disabled teen who weighed 23 pounds when finally taken to a hospital in March.
The Tribune reported Friday that the teen, now 17, could have been rescued four months earlier if DCFS workers responding to a hotline call had done their jobs properly.
The teen, who has cerebral
, is now improving at a Chicago hospital. Her mother pleaded guilty last month to misdemeanor endangering the life of a child. In a civil court proceeding regarding the girl's custody, the mother is accused of torture, records show.
The Armstrong case and others documented by the newspaper have raised questions about whether reforms from the 1990s are at risk in the wake of repeated state budget cuts, staff shortages and high caseloads.
Appointed six months ago, DCFS Director Richard Calica has been working on an agency reorganization to augment the depleted investigative staff and reduce unnecessary layers of management. The agency suffered another blow when the state Legislature recently passed a proposed budget that seeks to reduces DCFS' staff of 2,900 by 375 workers.
Calica said he likely will be forced to eliminate important services that aren't legally mandated, such as after-school resource centers in poor neighborhoods and child-abuse prevention programs.
"I don't have any other choice," Calica said. "The Legislature gave us our marching orders. I'm going to have to manage by triage."
Benjamin Wolf, assistant legal director of the
, said he is working with Calica to ensure the deep cuts don't violate a 1991 federal consent decree that requires the state to maintain a level of services for children at risk of abuse and neglect.
"The cuts would undoubtedly lead to deaths and serious harm to the state's most vulnerable children," Wolf said.
Gov. Pat Quinn is "deeply concerned" about the proposed DCFS cuts and how they will impact the agency's ability to prevent child abuse and neglect, a spokeswoman said Friday.
"We are exploring potential options to address these serious concerns," said Brooke Anderson, the governor's spokeswoman.
Triplett is a living example of the stakes. He now lives in Cottage Grove, Minn., and has two children.
On that Thanksgiving Day nearly 20 years ago, police said his mother finally brought him to the hospital. She and her live-in boyfriend were convicted of aggravated battery to a child and served short prison sentences, court records show.
Adopted by his paternal grandparents, Triplett was raised by them amid the cotton fields and catfish farms of rural Mississippi.
Most of the cigarette burns and whip marks faded with time, but Triplett said some scars remain.
He recalled how his grandmother rubbed his skin with cocoa butter, hoping to heal the marks that once crisscrossed his body. He received hormone shots for years to help him grow.
His family, he said, helped chase away the demons in his nightmares.
"He does not talk about the past, but I think about it," said Rebecca Triplett, his grandmother. "I know it still bothers him. It's important people never forget what happened to my baby."
Triplett said he was 5 feet tall when he stopped growing. Most of his male relatives, he said, are a full foot taller.
He graduated from high school and attended one year of community college before packing up for Minnesota last year to be near his girlfriend's family and find a good job.
Triplett described himself as an overprotective father to his daughters, ages 3 and 2.
He can't imagine, he said, how anyone could intentionally harm a child. His family's love and faith have helped him avoid trouble.
"I believe in God," he said. "I don't hold any grudges."
Years ago, he had a brief telephone conversation with his mother and hoped she would provide answers or apologize. Neither happened.
A self-described average guy, Triplett said he's proud that something positive came out of his troubled past.
"It makes me feel good if I helped another kid," he said.