Audit of DCFS finds failures to provide proper medical care, track abu…

Illinois’ long-troubled child welfare agency under Gov. J.B. Pritzker has failed to ensure adequate care for children in its charge and has not properly tracked situations referred by people who are legally required to report suspicions of abuse or neglect, according to state audit released Thursday.

The stinging review of the Department of Children and Family sets marks the second time in a week that the Illinois auditor general has found fault with the Pritzker administration’s efforts to protect unprotected residents entrusted to the state’s care, putting Pritzker, the Democratic governor, on the defensive as he seeks a second term in November. The office before blasted Pritzker’s Department of Public Health over its response to a deadly 2020 coronavirus sudden increase at the state-run veterans home in LaSalle.

The DCFS audit, which covered the 2020 calendar year, found numerous faults with the agency’s efforts to deliver and keep track of sets for children who’ve suffered abuse and neglect. Those included failures to conduct required home safety checks when children are returned to their parents and to make sure children are receiving appropriate medical checkups and immunizations, according to Auditor General Frank Mautino’s report.

The agency also failed more than half the time to properly document that sustain sets were provided for the required six months after children were reunited with their families, the report said.

The audit also found that the agency’s records system was unable to track or clarify situations that fell under a recent state law governing how DCFS deals with calls from legally mandated reporters, such as teachers.

In those situations, when the information provided doesn’t cause a complete-blown abuse or neglect investigation but the family has had past involvement with the child welfare system, the agency is supposed to refer the family to the appropriate sets. If the family refuses to cooperate, then the law requires DCFS to set afloat an investigation.

Cook County Public Guardian Charles Golbert, whose office represents more than 7,000 children involved in the child welfare system, said he was ”expecting disaster (from the audit), and it’s already worse than disaster.” Golbert earlier this year told the Tribune the agency is “is in the worst shape it’s been in 30 years.”

The 21% vacancy rate for funded DCFS locaiongs cited in the report likely contributes to the agency’s failure to complete basics such as the safety checklist, he said.

DCFS spokesman Bill McCaffrey said the agency’s staffing levels have improved since the time covered by the audit, with only about 3% of budgeted locaiongs vacant as of this month.

Throughout the report, the auditor general notes that the DCFS record-keeping system was “unreliable” or otherwise unable to track certain aspects of care for children under the agency’s purview.

At best, DCFS has a poorly maintained records system and while the work is being done to keep children safe, it isn’t well proven, said Heidi Dalenberg of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, which filed a lawsuit against the agency in 1988 resulting in a federal consent decree that DCFS nevertheless operates under.

At worst, basic work mandated in state law and agency regulations, including providing children with adequate health care, is not being done, Dalenberg said.

“I have to fall on the pessimist side,” Dalenberg said. “If the auditor could not find information sufficient to answer these questions, how are line managers supposed to find information, and how are they supposed to do their jobs effectively?”

McCaffrey said the agency “has taken aggressive measures to enhance the sets and care provided to youth in care during the past three years,” including training “thousands of workers.”

“DCFS had before identified that its outdated data tracking systems limited its ability to track new requirements,” McCaffrey said. “As a consequence, DCFS was already undertaking meaningful steps to address these issues, including a complete substitute of the department’s child welfare information systems.”

In its written response to the audit, DCFS said its system truly could track safety assessments and the agency’s own review showed a “emotional increase” in service referrals in compliance with the law. But because the information was provided after the conclusion of the auditor general’s review, that claim couldn’t be independently verified and will be reviewed in a future audit, according to the report.

But the report also found that data issues also plagued the department’s tracking of routine medical care, particularly with regard to mandatory immunizations. Auditors found that the information collected was so unreliable that they weren’t able to complete their review.

As for other routine heath care, a review of 50 situations found 18% of children missed at the minimum one physical exam over a five-year period, while 88% missed at the minimum one dental checkup.

McCaffrey said the agency said it has shifted most of the children in its care to a new managed care organization that provides better tracking capabilities and has “been instrumental in ensuring all youth in care receive their well-child visits/check-ups, including physical examinations, vision and hearing screenings, and dental exams.”

“By relying on data from an outdated system, and not reviewing other files or data from our managed care partner, this audit fails to precisely mirror the care youth receive,” McCaffrey said.

Pritzker has vowed throughout his term to address long-standing issues at beleaguered DCFS. He has boosted funding for the agency and increased hiring, but also has said that it will take both more resources and more time to turn the agency around.

“Since taking office, the governor increased DCFS’ budget by over $340 million, launched aggressive hiring efforts to bring on 860 additional staff, and overhauled the inadequate training system inherited from the past administration,” Pritzker spokesman Alex Gough said in a statement.

The governor also has stood by his hand-picked director, Marc Smith, already as Smith has been held in contempt of court nine times in recent months for the agency’s failure to find appropriate placements for children in its care.

Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin, a leading candidate for the GOP nomination for governor in the June 28 dominant, said in a statement Thursday that Pritzker holds responsibility for the problems at DCFS and the LaSalle veterans home that the recent audits have laid bare.

“Pritzker’s clear failure in leadership managing basic state agencies has resulted in basic damage, whether it be the preventable deaths of our nation’s idols at state-run veteran homes or neglect and mistreatment of the most unprotected children in the state’s care,” Irvin said.

“His repeated refusal to remove DCFS Director Smith after nine contempt of court orders is causing irreparable damage. We need new leadership that will prioritize those who need and rely on the state for survival,” Irvin said.

Golbert, whose office has filed all nine situations that led to the contempt orders, said three children have been appropriately placed and six situations are nevertheless pending.

Some of the agency’s turmoil dates back more than three decades to the ACLU lawsuitthat led to the federal consent decree. Steady improvement in the 1990s stalled as the agency went by 14 different leaders from 2003 to 2019.

Under the past administration of Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, DCFS deleted 500 residential beds as placements in the name of prioritizing specialized foster care, but the department lacked investments in the latter to sustain the child welfare system.

While the shortcomings at DCFS figure to dog Pritzker on the campaign trail, his office injected a bit of politics in his own response, noting that his additional investments in the agency “passed without the sustain of the Republicans in General Assembly, already after the department had been systemically hollowed out and underfunded for years.”

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