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Overhaul at DCFS:
Lawsuit prompts change

On August 29 Gov. Jim Edgar and Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) Director Sue Suter announced what they called "sweeping reforms" of Illinois' child welfare system. These reforms came from the consent decree that settled a three-year-old lawsuit against DCFS. The lawsuit, B.H. v Johnson, was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 1988 on behalf of the 22,000 children who were being served by the department. The lawsuit, the largest of its kind in the nation, alleged that DCFS was "so overloaded, underfunded and mismanaged that it routinely inflicted terrible harm" on the children in its custody.

Among the changes that Edgar and Suter unveiled were:

Reduction in caseloads for caseworkers. The national standard for social workers is 20-25 cases; loads at DCFS ran as high as 100 per caseworker. These caseload limits will be accomplished in a variety of ways including contracting out to private agencies and hiring new employees.

Modification of caseworker-to-supervisor and investigator-to-supervisor ratios in order to reduce personnel at the administrative level and increase the number of people involved with direct service. (One administrative criticism aimed at DCFS from the beginning was that the agency lacked any clear statement of mission and purpose. This lack of purpose led to mismanagement due to unclear goals.)

Specialized caseloads. Caseworkers will be assigned specialized caseloads, with assignments to either children in foster care or those in intact families. This specialization is expected to ultimately reduce the department's caseload through better casework. Ideally children will be placed in appropriate permanent homes more quickly.

Increased services to intact families. These services range from counseling and mental health services to help with substance abuse and day care needs.

Establishment of a comprehensive assessment system. The purpose of this is to identify quickly, within 30 days of removal of a child from the home, the long-term needs of the child and the family in an effort to prevent "foster care drift" the phenomenon of children being trapped in the system for indefinite periods of time.

Placement of children in a stable environment. Currently children in the custody of DCFS are moved between foster homes an average of five times.

Health care provided to children in custody. This will include treatment for specific illness and also preventive measures. DCFS allegedly denied basic dental and medical screenings as well as medicine to children in its care.

The reform came after two years of little movement toward a settlement. Then, in August of 1990, U.S. District Judge John Grady, with the agreement of both parties, appointed a panel of experts to review the situation. These experts were from a variety of fields concerned with different aspects of child care. They were charged with evaluating the system and recommending the necessary changes. Completed in October of 1990, their report was very critical of the system. It stated several major causes of problems at the agency:

"DCFS does not always know where its wards are located or what is happening to them."

"Children are often placed [in foster care] without adequate or any records. The result is misplacements, inappropriate educational services or denial of access to school altogether, a lack of or inappropriate health care, and sometimes the administration of multiple immunizations."

"Service planning is fragmented and incomplete ... in apparent disregard of a child's specific needs, age, culture or race."

"Less than 50 percent of families in founded [proved] cases of child abuse or neglect receive services from the department."

The panel offered a series of strong recommendations for overhaul of the system. These changes were incorporated into the consent decree that settled the lawsuit. Other recommendations included more training for caseworkers and better treatment of foster care parents as two general ways of aiding the system.

These reforms and other elements of the consent decree are to be phased in by July of 1994. The decree calls for a court appointed monitor who will follow the progress made by DCFS in order to ensure compliance.

Funding for the reforms will come from a 21 percent increase that the agency received in the fiscal 1992 budget. DCFS received the largest percentage increase of any social service agency, ostensibly due to settlement negotiations. It will remain to be seen whether the extra $104 million dollars can be the curative measure for which the much-maligned agency has been waiting.

Several third parties have been watching the progress of the suit. Among these groups is Voices for Illinois Children (VIC), an independent organization that focuses on policy analysis, public education and advocacy on children and family issues in Illinois. Malcolm Bush, a spokesman for VIC, feels that there are some very good things contained in the consent decree. He cited specifically reforms aimed at helping foster parents obtain medical records, prioritizing the educational needs of children in foster care and reducing the overwhelming caseloads.

Bush points out, however, that one agency cannot solve all the problems faced by abused and neglected children. Delays in the juvenile courts cause problems in caseload resolution; general issues of poverty must be recognized as having an impact on child abuse and neglect in Illinois and nationwide.

While the ACLU feels that the enforcement power of the federal court will be an impetus, attorneys representing the case say they won't hesitate to return to court if action isn't taken.

Jennifer Smith is majoring in legal studies at Sangamon State University. Smith is the student editorial assistant at Illinois Issues.

16/October /Illinois Issues

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