BY GARY ADKINS
The bad image of the
DCFS — doing its best
THE Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) could use some good publicity. It does a lot of admirable work, but often comes across as a huge impersonal villain, a lunatic agency carelessly sending children into unfit, unclean or unsafe environments. Once or twice each year a child is found killed or abused by hired guardians or abandoned in faulty institutions paid for and supposedly supervised by the agency. When such horrible things happen, the conclusion seems inescapable: DCFS is doing a damn poor job.
People in the department don't see it that way. There is agreement among people at many levels there that the media horror stories are not typical of the overall job being done by DCFS. "We're probably as good as any child welfare agency in the country," said Barb Ryan, Springfield area administrator. "But we just have a staggering range and number of services to provide and too few well-trained staff to work with."
The "range and number of services" provided by DCFS is indeed staggering. It must place abused, abandoned or orphaned children in institutions or foster homes. It must inspect and license those homes. It must administer trust funds for its wards from Social Security, the Veterans Administration and other bureaucratic sources. It must investigate, within 24 hours of report, thousands of allegations yearly of child abuse and neglect (neglect is not considered a form of abuse by DCFS, although it too must be investigated) and act to prevent future abuse. In addition, DCFS must act as guardian for all state wards, which includes making decisions on medical treatment for these wards. It must work to find qualified parents to adopt thousands of older, minority and disabled children, usually unwanted in the past. It must keep and administer a central statewide registry of child abuse reports. It must counsel parents and families in trouble. And it must administer many specialized programs including residential schools for handicapped children, rehabilitation for disabled adults, day care help and homemaker services to keep some families together.
It does not do all this without error, and the serious errors sometimes result in tragedy. Many people in the department still remember the case of six-year-old Johnny Lindquist, who was beaten senseless by his father in 1972 and died a month later without regaining consciousness. The boy had been returned to his parents' home despite vehement objections from the foster parents he had lived with for three years. Everybody remembers the death last year of Tina McCord, a three-year-old girl who died in the home of her foster parents at the hand of an older foster brother. In both cases the department was implicitly blamed for the children's death, blamed for not having the time or wisdom to decide where the child could be safely placed.
But if DCFS was to blame (and the media made it clear that it was), the rest of us probably should share the reproof. Abused and homeless children become "wards of the state" in our society, which may be the most humane condition possible. (In some societies after all, homeless children are abandoned to the streets or countryside to forage for themselves if not adopted by relatives or friends.)
Child welfare agencies are not a new idea, not even when run by government. Plato, in fact, proposed in The Republic that the ideal society would not allow parents to raise their children. The task, he said, could best be done by state specialists. But Plato doubtless did not envision huge bureaucracies such as DCFS. Nor could he anticipate giving a social worker responsibility for 50 to 70 children all living in different environments.
DCFS has 26,000 "wards of the state living under its care. The department administered over $129 million in state and federal moneys last fiscal year for more than 60 separate, often unrelated, programs and grants. It recorded 753 adoptive placements. And it dealt with a record 8,788 cases of reported child abuse last calendar year, an increase of more than 30 per cent from the year before. The department licensed about 2,100 day and night child care centers that collectively cared for 90,000 children.
Surely it is imprudent to expect an agency of this size and complexity to provide the kind of personal attention, counseling, supervision and love children need, and to do so in thousands of cases without some terrible blunders. Director Margaret M. Kennedy--appointed by Gov. James R. Thompson — says that "incidents like the [Tina] McCord case can't be eliminated without a tremendous increase in staff, and I don't think in the near future that this is going-to be a reality."
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In regard to placement of children, the department seems "stuck with a no-win situation," according to caseworker Carl Sciarini. "We must make a fast decision about removing a child from his parents' home or risk keeping him in an unstable environment," Sciarini says. Such decisions aren't often clear-cut, and the law isn't always on the caseworker's side, he says. Barb Ryan explains that children can only be removed from their parents' home when the department staff decides they have been abused or neglected, and there is a good chance of proving it in court. "We have no child's rights law in this state," Ryan says.
But the department's aim is to keep children in a home and out of institutions whenever possible. That goal was established under the Walker administration by then Director Jerome Miller. Miller, an idealistic university professor from Massachusetts, impatient with red tape, resigned under intense criticism in 1974, and experts close to the agency say that he did a poor job of getting federal funds then available. But his goal of noninstitutional care was adopted by Mary Lee Leahy, his successor, and by present director Kennedy.
Kennedy, who says she has been "in child welfare since the late thirties," began working for the state in 1946. She says that the "most notable" change in child welfare during her career has been the "emphasis to maintain a child in the home and community," whereas "in the past the focus was on removing the child to another community, without seeing if services in the home wouldn't correct problems facing the family and child." But Kennedy admits that many people in private social welfare agencies, most of the public and some experts don't believe the best place for a child is always a home rather than an institution. Such critics say home placement is dangerous because it makes the job of monitoring individual care much harder. "Caseworkers can't live in all the homes at once," one critic explained.
But foster care and in-home services do not cost as much as institutional care and certainly offer a more personal family environment. The state's cost is lower still when a youngster can be supported by his or her own parents. But foster care is also cheap. Too cheap, perhaps. Many foster parents and private agencies that provide foster care to department wards say that the state does not reimburse foster parents at anywhere near the true cost of caring adequately for a child. Some say this is not wholly a bad thing, since it may screen out those who might otherwise become foster parents for profit.
Foster homes have not been alone in producing scandal. Abuses have been reported in institutions too. For example at Windgate House in Woodstock last year alleged staff cruelty and negligence toward mentally retarded children were rumored. A governor's task force investigating Windgate was critical of DCFS for not adequately monitoring the home.
More recently, there were reports of sexual abuse and improper supervision of juveniles in two homes run by a little known, but apparently legitimate religious group in Chicago. The Dominican Fathers of the Old Roman Catholic Church — a private sect in no way connected with the Roman Catholic Church, but listed as a nonprofit religious group by the Illinois secretary of state's and attorney general's offices — ran facilities housing more than 137 state wards in 1977 under the now defunct Illinois Status Offenders Program. They were accused of allowing children in their care to be beaten and sexually abused, and DCFS removed the children from their care last January. But it was discovered in February that at least one state ward was still living with the sect — a teenage girl picked up for soliciting for prostitution at a nearby hotel.
As disturbing as such reports are, they should not be allowed to obscure the overall good job being done by private child welfare groups in the state. DCFS licenses dozens of institutions that are having great success. "You don't hear about the mentally handicapped girl who is graduating from high school after years of successful therapy and self-help," said one agency spokesman. "That doesn't make the front page."
Despite such omissions, however, much of the criticism of the agency is probably justified. Rep. Peter Peters (R., Chicago), one of the top legislative supporters of Gov. James R. Thompson, has criticized Thompson's administration for not moving to end "the chaotic conditions" in DCFS. Peters believes the agency should strengthen the educational and experience requirements for caseworkers and should increase payments for foster care. At present one needn't have experience or a university degree in child welfare, or social work, to become a DCFS caseworker. But persons within the agency, including director Kennedy, don't see this as a drawback. They say the main thing a caseworker needs is a good supervisor and a willingness and ability to learn. "A caseworker should have total empathy; if you have that, you can at least get out and help people," adds caseworker Carl Sciarini.
Director Kennedy, however, does see "additional training and staff at all levels" as a basic need. And she too would like to give additional funding to foster parents. "If the state is expecting foster parents to provide care for so many extremely troubled children, the state is going to have to pay appropriately for the service," she says. Kennedy thinks the department as a whole is in need of more funds also. For example, in child abuse "the number of reports have increased all over the state, but we've had no increase in staff to handle it. With a hiring freeze implemented, we're not responding as quickly to child abuse cases, and I think it's possible we aren't doing as good a job as in the past."
Perhaps the department has too many responsibilities, some of which may distract personnel from the priority areas of preventing child abuse and helping emotionally disturbed children. It certainly seems strange, for instance, that the department is operating facilities for visually impaired and for deaf children who are otherwise normal, and for visually impaired adults. While such residential schools as the Illinois School for the Deaf, the Illinois School for the Visually Impaired, both in Jacksonville, and the Illinois Children's Hospital-
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School in Chicago are needed, it is questionable whether they should be run by DCFS instead of the Office of Education or the Department of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities. Until recently, DCFS also ran the Illinois Veterans Home at Quincy — offering residential nursing or hospital care.
Another defect of DCFS may be in the way it advances caseworkers to management positions, at times creating a situation where people with good intentions but without proper training are misdirecting or not insuring adequate clerical documentation of DCFS casework. Critics, in fact, charge that this is a primary reason why the department does not get all the federal money to which it is entitled.
An administrative reorganization of the agency has been in the works for over a year and is only now beginning to be implemented. Appointment of four top administrators under the reorganization was announced March 7 by director Kennedy. A director of management services was appointed to oversee data processing, bills and budgets. A director of planning, research and development was named to keep the agency child abuse registry and evaluate programs. A director of staff services was named to run the 80 field offices of the agency, along with institutions and community services. And a director of technical assistance and monitoring was appointed to administer legal services in DCFS and to monitor caseworkers and child development and guardianship programs (for names of appointees see Names p. 32).
"Nothing hurts morale more than rumors about reorganization," says exdirector Leahy, "especially with comments being made about it by the governor and the director."
The new structure will eliminate four deputy director positions. Several area offices will be consolidated into a smaller number of regional offices. According to Kennedy the plan has four objectives:
"1. To shift much of the responsibility for line management of services from the central office to a regional level, This will move the Director's office one step
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closer to local service delivery.
"2. To give regional administration control of, or significant roles in, certain functions — i.e. contracting, business management, planning, guardianship, and child development (day care) — currently performed at either the Central or Area level.
"3. Toencourage specialization in program areas by staff members in both the regional offices and the Division of Technical Assistance and Monitoring. This will reduce overlap and duplication roles, and clarify distinctions between staff functions and line administrative responsibility.
"4. To achieve greater coordination of central office staff services by reducing the number of individuals or units reporting to the Director."
There is not much expectation that the reorganization will have great impact upon the quality of services offered by the department. People in the agency agree that the worst problem facing DCFS is a tight budget. That was the reason for ex-director Leahy's resignation, and it was blamed for most of the problems the agency encountered last year. Insiders say the low funding is exacerbated by rigid legislative controls exercised under the line-item budget. "It's hard to project how much we'll have to pay for each program," explains one DCFS worker. "Yet if we're over-funded in one area, we can't transfer authorization to another line item where it is badly needed; we have to give it back to the state. That practically makes efficient management of our funds impossible,"
In summation, the 1979 DCFS budget (see accompanying box) calls for an increase of over 9.5 per cent from last fiscal year. Yet most of this $6.79 million boost — $5.73 million — will go to a single line item: "out of home services to children." The result is that DCFS will live to meet larger caseloads than in past years even though its 18 areas and 80 field offices will be operating with smaller staffs, mostly because of the governor's hiring freeze. It is doubtful that even the most efficient reorganization can compensate for that kind of reduction. The agency will be even harder pressed to guarantee the care and safety of all the troubled and homeless children under its care.
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