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Column

Neighboring state rejects Illinois’ children

Social service organization, delivery need major overhaul

Jim Nowlan
Jim Nowlan

Apparently unable to care for our own youths, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) recently tried to place some of its wards (wards of the state, meaning you and me) with Indiana state social service agencies.

But the Hoosiers rejected our pleas: “Sorry, Illinois, but you’re a bad payment risk.”

ProPublica, a non-profit investigative news organization, reported recently that DCFS wards were languishing in Illinois mental health facilities much longer than necessary because DCFS had no place for them to be placed. Thus, the efforts to place wards in nearby Indiana facilities.

A DCFS staffer noted that parents of institutionalized children will often refuse to take their children back, which creates an immediate need for placement.

Throughout my half-century of observing Illinois, DCFS has continually been on the front pages – for such as allegedly failing to prevent a child’s death by neglect, or for failing to take another child out of a home where an abusive, possibly violent boyfriend lurks in the background, just out of sight.

It’s an impossible job. We ask mostly young, poorly paid, overwhelmed DCFS caseworkers, with way too many cases, to play God, that is, recommend whether to take a child away from a dysfunctional family, or to leave the child in what could possibly become an abusive, dangerous situation.

Out of thousands of such decisions, mistakes are made, with often grisly consequences.

And it’s a dangerous job as well. Last year, a DCFS caseworker in northwestern Illinois was brutally beaten, and later died, as she tried to take a 2-year-old into the protective custody of the state (representing you and me).

Over the decades, including today, DCFS has had many talented, highly professional staff; they wear their hearts out in behalf of children. Yet the agency has never really been functional.

Indeed, the state of Illinois isn’t even the final word on running the state agency. About 25 years ago, because of apparent failures to provide adequate services, the state signed a “consent decree” in U.S. District Court in Chicago, which now oversees DCFS through a court-appointed monitor. The state has not to this day been able to get out from under court supervision.

I think DCFS leadership figured, in part, that the court oversight would give the agency leverage with the governor and Legislature when it came to state funding for the agency.

That hasn’t worked, either. DCFS has gone from 3,117 employees in 2008 to 2,577 proposed for this year, and from a budget of $1.3 billion back in 2008 to $1.2 billion in 2019, which represents a serious decline in purchasing power.

I can’t find in the 2019 state budget book any numbers for children served, but I am confident that number is not down from 2008.

A fundamental problem in Illinois is that the state is not organized to serve children and their parents. Oh, sure, there is DCFS. But many of the issues critical to children and families – mental health, health care, substance abuses problems of parents, and poverty – are all handled by different bureaucracies.

Nor are the multitude of different programs always in the right place. The Department of Human Services has a “family stability” program, which is what DCFS is supposed to be all about.

Nor do the agencies cooperate much. As one long-time observer of state government put it: Interagency cooperation is an unnatural act among unwilling partners.

Nor do they communicate much. The scores of archaic state IT systems, slowly being updated, can’t easily share information about a single family, even though the family may receive services from four or five agencies.

It’s a big mess for parents and children who need help. Navigating the system requires dealing with several agencies that are often located in different physical locations.

I like the proposal of a social service agency leader in my territory: Provide each family a single case navigator at the local level. This case manager could help the family orchestrate whatever services are needed from across the varied agencies.

And, important, also assign the case navigator responsibility for measuring the progress of the family toward independence from government.

Social service organization and delivery in Illinois need a major overhaul.

Note to readers: Jim Nowlan of Toulon can be reached at jnowlan3@gmail.com.

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